On the eve of the anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, a delegation of American evangelical leaders met with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to discuss the state of religious freedom and the battle against extremism in the kingdom.
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 planned reforms as part of the country’s 2030 Vision and visited the ancient Nabatean city of Al-Ula.
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.
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.
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.”
Rosenberg said in a statement that the delegation is encouraged that U.S. Sens. Todd Young, R-Ind., and Angus King, I-Maine, visited Saudi Arabia this week and met with the crown prince. However, he voiced disappointment that they were the only two senators that have traveled to Saudi Arabia in 2019.
“Saudi Arabia is one of America’s most important strategic allies in the war against Radical Islamist terrorism and in countering the rising Iranian threat,” Rosenberg said.
“Yes, there are significant challenges in the U.S.-Saudi relationship. But we urge more senators to come here, see the sweeping and positive reforms that the Crown Prince is making, and ask him candid questions directly rather than sniping at him from Washington.”
According to Moore, there has been a “seismic shift” in the religious freedom discussions taking place over the last year in the Sunni-majority kingdom.
He pointed to a four-day conference with over 1,200 top Islamic scholars held earlier this year by the Muslim World League. The conference resulted in the Mekkah Charter promoting ideas of toleration, moderation, diversity, and coexistence.
Moore added that the “wheels are on the road” when it comes to the diversification of the Saudi economy from a “reform perspective.” He said there are many economic barriers on institutional, political and ideological levels that are “falling down quickly.”
Moore expressed optimism in the fact that reports have indicated that the kingdom is going to announce new tourism visas.
“Why does that matter? Because the kingdom has been closed off and modernization and reform require openness,” Moore stressed.
In their discussions, Moore said that he and the other evangelicals pressed for certain laws and policies to be changed.
“It was a very substantive discussion. It was so substantive that we can’t even share the vast majority of what we talked about,” Moore said, adding that he did not want to unveil publicly finite details of the private conversation. “The conversations were that candid. We are realistic and we are patient.”
Moore also praised the Saudi Vision 2030 reform agenda.
“Why have I come three times?” Moore posited.
“I do feel like things are moving forward and moving forward quickly. If, in the end, they only accomplish half or a third of their proposed Vision 2030 reforms, the kingdom will be unrecognizable and the region will be unrecognizable. We met a lot of people that are instituting the reforms on the managerial level, I think they are going to achieve a lot more than that. I think they are going to get a lot of it done.”
Despite its efforts at reform, Saudi Arabia took heat from religious freedom advocates this spring after reports of a mass execution of Shiia clerics.
Moore said that Saudi’s treatment of Shiias was among the many things that were brought up in the discussions.
“We talked a lot about those types of questions. I have always been a bit more sympathetic to the national security question as it relates to the way that the Iranian’s use religion as a shield for some of their activity in the region,” Moore said.
“We tried to take a nuanced view while not wavering at all from our commitment to human rights and religious freedom while recognizing entirely that there are plenty of examples of unjust actions.
Meanwhile, we also acknowledge that the Saudis are not being deceptive when they say ‘Yes, we are committed to improving that area. But you have to also recognize that there are both Sunni and Shia extremists that have cleverly recognized that the most effective shield to protect either them or their extremist activity is to raise the shield of human rights and religious freedom.’”
In their joint statement, the evangelical leaders concluded by saying they are “delighted” by the scope of the developments taking place in Saudi Arabia but have an expectation for more change.
“We are also patient friends with realistic expectations that it will take time to reform what took years to create,” the statement reads.
In addition to their meetings with government officials, the evangelical delegation also met with leaders from the Muslim World League on Wednesday, the day of the 9/11 anniversary, to discuss ways to promote peaceful coexistence.