In a country that is decidedly and proudly Muslim, has banned public worship by other religions and maintains a highly controversial record on human rights, what are the chances that Saudi Arabia will allow the first church to be built in the Kingdom?
Better than most people might think.
That is the assessment of several people who were featured in a report this week by Business Insider.
In recent years, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) has been working to improve the Kingdom’s image. He even invited two Evangelical delegations to meet with him personal. Both delegations were led by ALL ARAB NEWS founder and Editor-in-Chief Joel C. Rosenberg in 2018 and 2019.
MBS has also met with Egyptian Coptic Christian leaders and Anglican leaders.
Last December, MBS also secretly with the Israeli prime minister.
The Business Insider article cites several Christians who are encouraging the building of the first church in Saudi Arabia. Rosenberg did not do an interview but is cited in the article.
“Sweeping changes are underway throughout the Arab world and no less in Saudi Arabia,” Rosenberg wrote for ALL ARAB NEWS in September, recalling his two groundbreaking visits.
In 2019, Rosenberg was featured on the front page of the Saudi Gazette in “a rare and possibly unprecedented interview with an Evangelical Christian and Israeli speaking candidly about war, peace, reform, the Crown Prince and what followers of Jesus believe.”
Rosenberg also interviewed a leading Saudi religious figure who has made it his mission to “build bridges” with Jews and Christians, Sheikh Mohammed al-Issa.
As head of the Muslim World League, al-Issa “has been working non-stop to counter the teaching of radical Islamists and violent extremists, and to encourage Muslim clerics in Saudi Arabia and around the world to teach only moderate Islam,” Rosenberg wrote.
All of these factors are converging in what Business Insider reports “is a matter of when, not if,” a church may be built in the Kingdom.
“I personally believe religious freedom is possible in Saudi Arabia and I didn’t believe that before,” Rev. Johnnie Moore, an Evangelical advisor to President Donald Trump who was on both delegations with Rosenberg, told Business Insider.
In the first visit by Evangelicals to the Royal Court in 300 years, Rosenberg and Moore spoke with MBS about many “controversial” issues and specifically urge him to allow the building of churches in Saudi Arabia.
MBS didn’t say no — he said, “Not now.”
The U.S. government has also been pressing Saudi Arabia for years to allow churches.
Nina Shea, a former U.S. Commissioner on International Religious Freedom, told Business Insider that all of Saudi Arabia is more or less a Muslim shrine, which makes it more difficult under Islamic law to allow a church.
Saudi Arabia is home to 1.4 million Christians. In the past, Christians have been arrested for gathering and meeting underground, but under MBS the country has actually softened its stance, disbanding the religious police and largely ignoring meetings they would have raided in the past.
The question, though, is not just when, but where building a church would be suitable. Many believe that two possibilities are the Diplomatic Quarter in Riyadh, or in Neom, the futuristic province being planned in the northwest quadrant of Saudi Arabia.
But despite winds of change, if the ban on churches is lifted, there will still be opposition.
“Do you see any mosques in the Vatican? No. Likewise, we are not allowed to have any churches,” Sheikh Assim al-Hakeem, a leading Saudi cleric, said on his YouTube Channel.
In previous statements, Rosenberg has said he is hopeful that it wont be long before the first church is built in Saudi Arabia — and has encouraged Christians to be prayerful yet patient.
“The crown prince’s plan, after all, is Vision 2030, not Vision 2020,” he wrote after his 2019 visit.
Click here to read the full Business Insider article.