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Mixed signals

International | Christians debate whether Saudi overtures to U.S. evangelicals are made in good faith
by Harvest Prude
Posted 9/24/19, 05:12 pm

Saudi Arabia only allows Muslims to become citizens. It threatens Christian converts with the death penalty and allows officials and neighbors to persecute religious minorities. Open Doors International ranks the kingdom as the 15th most oppressive country toward Christians.

So why did Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman invite nine evangelical Christians from the United States to visit him on Sept. 10?

Members of the delegation said in a statement they went to Saudi Arabia to “engage in dialogue about countering extremism, the Middle East peace process, religious freedom, human rights and an update on ongoing reforms.” It was their second such meeting: A similar group first met with Saudi royals last October, shortly after the kingdom faced intense international criticism for the brutal killing of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.

Joel C. Rosenberg, an author and dual U.S.-Israeli citizen who led the trip, said it was unrelated to either the American or Israeli governments. The group included Johnnie Moore, an unofficial evangelical adviser to President Donald Trump; A. Larry Ross, a former spokesman for Billy Graham; and Christian media leaders.

In a phone call from Jerusalem, Rosenberg told me, “If God opens a door for us to meet with these leaders, we consider it an opportunity and responsibility to discuss various issues that Christians have wanted to talk about.”

The crown prince has portrayed himself as a reformer, taking steps such as allowing movie theaters to open and letting women drive. The reforms are part of an economic overhaul called Vision 2030, designed to make the kingdom less dependent on oil revenue and to encourage foreign investment.

“They have to find a way to be appealing for Westerners,” said Claire Evans, International Christian Concern’s regional manager for the Middle East.

At the same time, though, the crown prince is developing a reputation for brutality. Human Rights Watch reported last year that since he came to power in 2017, “Saudi authorities have escalated an intensified a coordinated crackdown on dissidents and human rights activists.” Though women are now allowed to drive, nine female activists who fought for that right remain imprisoned. The country has also executed more than 650 people since 2013, more than 200 of them for nonviolent drug crimes.

Many Washington lawmakers have soured on the United States’ partnership with the Saudis. Added to the involvement of 15 Saudi nationals in the 9/11 terror attacks and the country’s contribution to the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, the Khashoggi killing was, for many, the final straw. Khashoggi was a Saudi exile in the United States who wrote columns critical of the crown prince for The Washington Post. The CIA concluded that Saudi operatives carried out the murder and the crown prince was complicit “in the highest way possible,” U.S. Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., said after a briefing with the CIA in December 2018.

The American evangelicals met with the crown prince and other Saudi officials in Jeddah, Khashoggi’s hometown. Rosenberg said the evangelicals raised concerns with them over human rights and religious freedom, such as Christians being unable to gather and worship together in public.

The group, according to Rosenberg, also asked the crown prince to issue a royal decree “affirming the right of religious minorities to study their Holy Books and practice their faith and worship in the privacy of their own homes.” He added, “Christians and other religious minorities are allowed to worship in their own homes … but not every Christian is convinced that that is the case. … There’s no law that says that is OK.”

Rosenberg said the Saudi leaders’ responses were off the record.

Evans said Saudi actions like inviting foreign evangelicals are positive but symbolic steps. “They don’t do anything other than send a message to a foreign component that you can come here,” she said. “They have not taken any concrete steps to actually make a difference in ways that would improve religious freedom.”

Evans added that ICC has heard from some people on the ground who have found such steps encouraging. “They’re amazed because this is the first time the country has even acknowledged Christianity or religious freedom in some capacity,” she said, adding that many others remain skeptical that things will change. “Another group of believers—they think it’s all just smoke and mirrors.”

Rosenberg said he plans to remain patient.

“We’re asking [the crown prince] for other things he can do better with, so we’ll be watching,” he said. “It’s not a threat, it’s a reality. He didn’t have to invite us, didn’t have to raise an expectation. … We told him that; if you invite us and meet with us, Christians around the world will be expecting change.”

Associated Press/Photo by Sunday Alamba (file) Associated Press/Photo by Sunday Alamba (file) Nigerian soldiers in Lagos

Prisoners of the war

The Nigerian military has detained thousands of children who have suspected links to the Islamic terror group Boko Haram. Authorities have held many of them without charges for as long as a year.

A report by Human Rights Watch this month revealed the military detained many of the children with little to no evidence. Some of the arrests were based on informant accounts, while security sweeps and military operations accounted for the others.

Military officials and members of the Civilian Joint Task Force transferred the majority of the arrested children to the Giwa military barracks in northeastern Borno state. Some of the children interviewed by Human Rights Watch said they received beatings and slept “like razor blades in a pack.”

The United Nations reported earlier that Nigerian armed forces detained more than 3,600 children, including 1,617 girls, between January 2013 and March 2019. The group called on authorities to release all children not charged with a criminal offense and to allow unrestricted monitoring of the facilities where minors may be held. —Onize Ohikere

Facebook/Rehman Chishti Facebook/Rehman Chishti Rehman Chishti (right) with Bishop Michael James Nazir-Ali (center) and Prime Minister Boris Johnson

U.K. adds religious freedom envoy

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Sept. 12 appointed Rehman Chishti, a member of Parliament, as the new special envoy for freedom of religion or belief.

“People across the world deserve the chance to practice their beliefs freely,” Johnson said. “The U.K. will always be a passionate advocate for greater tolerance, respect, and understanding internationally.”

Mervyn Thomas, CEO of U.K.-based Christian Solidarity Worldwide, praised the selection given Chishti’s outspokenness on religious freedom. In Parliament, Chishti often raised questions about the plight of religious minorities and the government’s response to cases like that of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman prosecuted in Pakistan. —Julia A. Seymour

Associated Press/Photo by Manish Swarup Associated Press/Photo by Manish Swarup A roadside tobacco shop vendor displays an e-cigarette in New Delhi, India.

India bans vaping

India last week banned the production, import, and sale of electronic cigarettes. The country’s health ministry proposed the rule, which will go into effect by executive order and carry a three-year jail sentence for offenders. “Considering the seriousness of the impact of e-cigarettes on the youth, the Cabinet has approved an ordinance to ban e-cigarettes,” Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said.

In the United States, health officials recently started reporting severe breathing illnesses in teens and young adults who use e-cigarettes, or vape. Michigan responded with a proposed ban on flavored e-cigarettes, something the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is considering, as well.

India has 106 million adult smokers, the second-highest number in the world after China. More than 900,000 people die in the country each year from tobacco-related illnesses. —O.O.

Associated Press Associated Press Nabil Karoui (left) and Kais Saied

Election updates

Tunisia: Two political outsiders—media magnate Nabil Karoui and law professor Kais Saied—came out ahead in the country’s presidential election. Karoui and Saied defeated two former prime ministers and Abdelfattah Mourou, the candidate from the Ennahdha moderate Islamist party. A runoff vote between the top two vote-getters will take place no later than next month, according to electoral officials. The election is the second since the 2011 revolution.

Karoui advanced to the runoff despite being jailed in late August on charges of money laundering and tax evasion. He called the arrests politically motivated and said he still thinks he can win the presidency.

Spain: Voters are set to head to the polls for the fourth time in four years. Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s socialist party secured the most seats in parliament in April but could not form a coalition with the other parties. King Felipe VI set the new vote for Nov. 10. Opinion polls signal the socialist party could win more seats in a new vote, but likely not enough to clinch a majority. —O.O.

Harvest Prude

Harvest is a political reporter for WORLD's Washington Bureau. She is a World Journalism Institute and Patrick Henry College graduate. Harvest resides in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter @HarvestPrude.

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  •  Brendan Bossard's picture
    Brendan Bossard
    Posted: Tue, 09/24/2019 09:43 pm

    According to Joel Rosenberg's newsroom on, the complete list of delegates to the Crown Prince is:  Joel and Lynn Rosenberg, Rev. Johnnie Moore, Larry Ross, Hon. John Kenneth Blackwell, Wayne Pederson, Michael Little, and Skip and Lenya Heitzig.

    I do not doubt their sincerity.  I hope that in their private conversations with the Crown Prince and his peers that they aim higher than mere human rights.  But it is a start!

  • OldMike
    Posted: Wed, 09/25/2019 12:22 pm

    Re: the group of evangelicals invited to visit Saudi Arabia. 

    Yes, Saudi leadership may simply be trying a little window dressing to make their Kingdom appear a bit less repressive. 

    But imo, any opportunity for Christians to visit and talk should be taken advantage of. Our Lord changes minds and lives of the most unlikely people, in the most unlikely circumstances. We are required only to plant seeds, possibly to water, but leave the results to The Lord. 

    Posted: Wed, 09/25/2019 04:14 pm

    Ravi Zacharias has something to say on this subject: