Saudi ambassador to Washington hosts private dinner for 8 Evangelical leaders
Three-hour discussion part of the Kingdom’s interfaith efforts to build closer ties with Christians and Jews
WASHINGTON — One of the most fascinating and encouraging decisions by the Saudi leadership in recent years has been to launch a series of interfaith initiatives designed to build closer ties between Muslims, Christians and Jews.
Program from a private dinner with Princess Reema bint Bandar al-Saud and eight Evangelical leaders, Sept. 29, 2020. (Photo: All Arab News)
Long perceived in the West as a “forbidden kingdom” wanting little or no connection with other religions, the Saudis under the leadership of King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (widely known by his initials MBS) have been making a concerted, if under-publicized, effort to change course.
As part of that effort, the Saudi Ambassador to the United States, Princess Reema bint Bandar al-Saud, hosted a private dinner at her residence in northern Virginia on Monday night for eight Evangelical leaders, including myself.
While our conversations were off the record, I can report that we covered a wide range of issues over the course of our three hours together.
Over a sumptuous meal of lamb, rice, grilled vegetables and wonderful hummus, we asked the ambassador about how the Kingdom is dealing with the challenges of COVID-19, how she would assess the progress being made for women in her country and how Saudi leaders perceive the seriousness of the threats posed by Iran, the Muslim Brotherhood and other radical Islamist states and groups.
We also touched on particularly sensitive matters from various prisoners being held by Saudi authorities, to human rights concerns in the Kingdom, to how Saudi leaders and citizens are reacting to the recent signing of the historic Abraham Accords, the peace and full normalization agreements between the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Israel, all brokered by the United States.
Nothing was off limits and the ambassador, 45, was both candid and expansive, and she had questions for us, as well.
Four trusted advisors to the Saudi King and Crown Prince (l to r): Princess Reema bint Bandar al-Saud, ambassador to the U.S.; Prince Khalid bin Salman, vice defense minister; Sheikh Mohammed al-Issa, secretary general of the Muslim World League; Adel al-Jubeir, minister of State for Foreign Affairs. (Photo: All Arab News)
Joining me were many of the Evangelical leaders who had been members of the delegations that I led to Saudi Arabia in 2018 and 2019 to meet with the Crown Prince and other senior Saudi officials and royals.
• Ken Blackwell, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Human Rights Commission
• Rev. Johnnie Moore, a commissioner with the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF)
• Michael Little, former president of the Christian Broadcasting Network
• A. Larry Ross, former spokesman for Billy Graham
• Skip Heitzig, pastor of a 15,000-member Evangelical church in Albuquerque, New Mexico
• Lenya Heitzig, Bible teacher, author and Skip’s wife.
Also attending was Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas and two-time presidential candidate. I had invited him on both of our trips to the Kingdom but he was unable to attend.
Evangelical leaders meet with Saudi Crown Prince at Royal Palace in Jeddah on Sept. 10, 2019. (Photo: All Arab News)
What was particularly interesting to me was that every Evangelical who was there with me is also a founding member of the Board — or our advisory boards — for ALL ISRAEL NEWS and ALL ARAB NEWS.
As such, each is deeply concerned about making sure there is fair and accurate news coverage and analysis of events and trends on the Middle East and North Africa, especially for the world’s 600 million Evangelical Christians who are immensely interested in the region and committed to pray for peace and more religious freedom, but are often frustrated — even angered — by the extreme bias they too often see in the media.
The dinner, held just days after Saudi National Day — commemorating the 90th anniversary of the establishment of modern unified Saudi kingdom — was yet another intriguing step in Riyadh’s interfaith efforts.
The Saudi Crown Prince meets with Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II. (Photo: Coptic Orthodox Church)
Here are some of the steps they have taken in this regard in recent years:
- When MBS visited Cairo in the spring of 2018, he made it a point to meet with Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II, the first time such a meeting had ever occurred — and in a Church building, no less.
- When MBS visited London that same year, he met with Justin Welby, the archbishop of Canterbury, head of the Anglican Church — also a first.
- In November of that year, MBS welcomed me and my delegation of Evangelical Christians to the royal palace in Riyadh. It was, we learned, the first time that Christian leaders had ever been invited to the palace in the 300 years that the Saud family have ruled much of the Arabian Peninsula. But it was not the last.
- In September 2019, just one year ago, MBS welcomed us for a return visit.
- Since then, MBS has welcomed American Jewish leaders to the kingdom.
- And in January of this year, Sheikh Mohammed al-Issa, a Saudi national and secretary general of the Muslim World League — the largest Islamic organization in the world with offices in 139 countries — led the first-ever delegation of Muslim leaders to Auschwitz-Birkenau, the Nazi death camp located in Poland
The Saudi Crown Prince meets with Justin Welby, Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury. (Photo: Saudi Royal Palace)
To be sure, while Christian and Jewish leaders are encouraged by the progress we have seen in recent years in a number of areas, we still have many serious concerns about the lack of true and full religious freedom in the Kingdom, about human rights abuses and the need for far more sweeping reforms.
The question for me, at least, is this: What is the best way to address my concerns about Saudi Arabia, or any nation? Do I rail and complain and protest from the sidelines? Or should I engage, build trust, praise the progress that is real while never ceasing to push for — and pray for — more change, yet do so as a friend rather than an enemy?
Different countries sometimes require different strategies.
Plenty of people criticize my interaction with the Saudis. But I don’t care. Seeing the Saudis making real reforms and achieving real progress is not enough — not nearly so. But it is important. It is historic. And it should be encouraged, not dismissed.