Now might not be the best time to visit Saudi Arabia, but a delegation of US evangelical leaders felt it was a risk worth taking.
For just the second time in less than a year, a delegation of US evangelical Christian leaders accepted an invitation to visit Saudi Arabia and its leaders. The visit marked one more step in a growing relationship between US evangelicals and the Sunni Arab leaders of the Middle East.
The visit made the national news in the kingdom.
“To see every newspaper in this country have evangelicals above the fold not hiding our visit but celebrating our visit, to put it mildly, this is historic,” said Johnnie Moore, Co-Chairman of President Donald Trump’s Evangelical Advisory Council.
The delegation met with Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Slaman on the eve of the anniversary of 9/11. To some, it seemed an unlikely time but the leader of the delegation, Joel Rosenberg, said there was a purpose behind the timing.
“The Saudi Arabia of 18 years ago. The Saudi Arabia out of which Osama Bin Laden came, Al-Qaeda and the radical theology of violent jihad. That Saudi Arabia doesn’t exist anymore. They have made sweeping changes that most Americans, most Christians aren’t aware of,” Rosenberg told CBN news.
The delegation — led by joint U.S. and Israeli citizen and author Joel Rosenberg — also met with a wide range of senior government and military officials where they discussed the state of religious freedom and the battle against extremism in the kingdom.
Tuesday’s meeting also included Saudi Ambassador to the U.S., Princess Reema bint Bandar; Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Adel al-Jubeir; Vice Defense Minister, Prince Khalid bin Salman; and Secretary-General of the Muslim World League, Sheikh Mohammed al-Issa.
Lenya Heitzig from Calvary Albuquerque, a church in New Mexico, says she was “profoundly astounded” at how much freedom women are being given.
“We talk about veiled women, women under the veil and the country under the veil and I think there’s a veil over people’s perceptions in the West. There’s a misunderstanding,” Heitzig’s husband Skip said.
During the multiday trip, the delegation was also briefed on the history of Christianity in the Arabian peninsula, and shown evidence that Iran is aiding Houthi rebels in the Yemeni conflict.
Many in the West see the crown prince and Saudi Arabia through a darker prism including the murder investigation of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. While not dismissing the crime, Rosenberg and the delegation felt it important to be in the room with a voice.
“The opportunity to be in the room and build a relationship means you can also ask the hard questions. You can ask direct questions. You can engage on human rights issues, religious freedom issues. How can you affect it unless you have an opportunity to talk to the top leader?”
Former US Ambassador to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights Ken Blackwell told CBN, “Nothing was hidden. Nothing was off the table in terms of discussion.”
This was the second visit to Saudi Arabia for the Rosenberg-led delegation. Their first visit occurred last November in the wake of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at a Saudi consulate in Turkey.
The meeting with Salman this time came on the eve of the 18th anniversary of the deadliest terror attack on American soil. The timing of the visit drew the ire of critics on social media who noted that 15 of the 19 hijackers who participated in the 9/11 attacks were Saudi citizens.
“While it may surprise some that we would choose the week of September 11 to visit the kingdom, we actually feel there is no more appropriate time to focus on where the kingdom must go, can go, and where we believe it is going,” a statement released by the delegation reads.
“In fact, our visit here on this profoundly important week is in defiance of those that aim to derail reform in the kingdom through an embrace of hate and fear rather than courage and moderation.”
Along with Rosenberg and his wife, Lynn, the delegation included A. Larry Ross, founder and CEO of one of the nation’s most respected Evangelical public relations firms; Family Research Council senior fellow Ken Blackwell; former National Religious Broadcasters President Wayne Pederson; former Christian Broadcasting Network CEO Michael Little; megachurch pastor Skip Heitzig; and Heitzig’s wife, Lenya.
The delegation also included evangelical public relations executive Johnnie Moore, who also serves as a commissioner on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and is a spokesperson for evangelical leaders who have informally engaged with the Trump administration. Moore is also president of the Congress of Christian Leaders.
The trip marked Moore’s third time visiting Saudi Arabia in the last year.
Moore told The Christian Post that most of the evangelical delegation arrived in the kingdom on Sunday and left Thursday. He said that the days were packed with meetings and trips. Moore detailed that the crown prince devoted much of his Tuesday afternoon to the meeting with the delegation.
He said the fact that the meetings were held on the week of the anniversary of 9/11 “took the conversation to a different level.”
“No terrorist can sleep easy at night any longer in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” Moore said. “This is not a place like it was in 2001 were under the noses of a lot of people a figure like [al-Qaeda founder] Osama Bin Laden could have arisen.”
“When you talk to the young Saudi leaders, they take it very personally,” he added. “They say that [Bin Laden] not only hijacked their religion and the name of God, but they also said they are not going to let him win the war by destroying our future.”
Saudi Arabia ranks 15th on Open Doors 2019 World Watch list of the 50 countries where it is most deadly to be a Christian.