There Are Still No Churches in Saudi Arabia, But There Are Small Steps Toward Religious Freedom

Saudi Arabia has made unprecedented strides toward religious tolerance just a year after its young new ruler pledged to bring more moderate Islam to the Sunni kingdom.

After a visit to the capital city of Riyadh last week, US officials reported the country has reformed its religious police—once tasked with enforcing shari’ah law on the streets and in homes—and has instituted new government programs to quash extremism.

“I was surprised by the pace of change in the country. It reminded me of the verse at the end of Book of Job which says, ‘My ears had heard … but now my eyes have seen,’” said US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) commissioner Johnnie Moore, who has also served as an unofficial liaison between evangelical leaders and the Trump White House.

“It was the first time I have ever thought to myself, Wow, we could actually see religious freedom in Saudi. This is possible.”

Moore represents the highest-profile evangelical leader to meet with the Saudi government since 33-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman announced plans last October to return the restrictive Muslim country to “what we were before: a country of moderate Islam that is open to all religions and to the world.” The USCIRF official formerly worked with Mark Burnett and Roma Downey’s campaign to aid persecuted Christians in the Middle East.

Fewer than 5 percent of the 32 million people living in Saudi Arabia are Christians, according to Pew Research, and the kingdom ranks No. 12 among countries where it is hardest to follow Jesus, according to Open Doors. Likewise the State Department, at USCIRF’s recommendation, has designated Saudi Arabia a “country of particular concern” since 2004 due to its egregious religious freedom violations.

The government still does not sanction churches or any form public worship by non-Muslims, but progress is being made toward allowing private worship and protecting the rights of minority faiths.

As the conservative Muslim nation instituted new social reforms—including lifting its infamous ban on women driving—bin Salman has recently hosted a string of Christian leaders.

“It should not be lost on us that the Crown Prince has—in the last six months alone—met with the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Maronite Patriarch, and met with the Coptic Pope in Cairo and that meeting took place in front of wall-sized piece of art honoring Jesus,” Moore told CT.

“There was also a very prominent visit by the recently deceased Cardinal Tauran [a Vatican diplomat] where he signed a joint agreement to promote peaceful coexistence with the General Secretary of the World Muslim League, Dr. al-Issa.”

During their visit, Moore and fellow USCIRF commissioner Nadine Maenza met with leaders across the government, including the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, which promotes Islamic moral code.

According to Moore, the commission—once the greatest barrier to private worship—no longer has authority to go into people’s homes or to make arrests. He said Christians in Saudi Arabia have already felt the effects of the reform under bin Salman and support the changes.

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Source: Christianity Today