JEDDAH — Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman is leading Saudi Arabia through the most dramatic, positive and exciting social and economic reforms in the history of the Kingdom, said Joel C. Rosenberg, New York Times best-selling author and head of the Evangelical Delegation, in an exclusive interview with Saudi Gazette, following his visit to the Kingdom recently.
“He has been crystal clear that he (Crown Prince) wants to reform the Kingdom and make it a model of moderate Islam, and for this he deserves tremendous credit.
“He’s clearly working around the clock to change both the reality and the perception of the Kingdom. He’s also made it clear that he’s not trying to reform Islam but rather reinstitute moderate Islam that once characterized the Kingdom before 1979.
“I believe the Crown Prince’s Vision 2030 is taking the Kingdom in the right direction. I’m encouraged by the tremendous progress he is already making. And I’m quite optimistic about the Kingdom’s future, in part because I’ve had the chance to see the changes and talk to the Crown Prince about them first-hand,” said Rosenberg. Here are the excerpts.
Q: Saudi Arabia has taken the lead in fostering Interfaith Dialogue by hosting many meets over the last decade. Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman has said in interviews that he wants to return Saudi Arabia to a “moderate Islam” that is more open to the world and tolerant of other faiths. Your meeting is another indication of his resolve. How do you see such dialogues shaping the global conversation?
Rosenberg: Let me first say that my Evangelical colleagues and I were horrified by the barbaric attacks that the Iranian regime made on your oil facilities, just two days after our delegation departed Jeddah. We were glad to see President Trump immediately call the Crown Prince and vow to stand with the Saudi people during this crisis. That was the right thing to do.
None of us want to see another war in the Middle East. As followers of Jesus Christ, we are commanded in the Bible to pray for peace and to be peacemakers. So, we are praying fervently for peace and stability.
At the same time, however, we regard the Iranian regime as sheer evil, determined to export their Revolution of death and destruction in a wicked scheme to establish a global Caliphate.
The mullahs of Iran cannot be allowed to terrorize or conquer their neighbors. Anyone interested in peace must be opposed to the regime in Iran, and this is one of the reasons we came to Saudi Arabia — to encourage closer strategic relations between the United States government, the American people, and the people and leaders of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Many are trying to divide our two countries. But the stakes are too high to let that happen.
Now, I’m happy to address your specific question.
Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman is leading Saudi Arabia through the most dramatic, positive and exciting social and economic reforms in the history of the Kingdom. He has been crystal clear that he wants to reform the Kingdom and make it a model of moderate Islam, and for this he deserves tremendous credit.
What’s especially encouraging is that this is not mere rhetoric. The Crown Prince is taking bold and specific actions. The government has fired many extremist clerics who used to preach in Saudi mosques but refused to change their ways. Most Americans don’t know this, but this is a very important reform.
The Crown Prince also traveled to Egypt in early 2018 and met with Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros inside the main church in Cairo. Then he traveled to London and met with the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury.
No Saudi leader had ever done such things before.
In November of last year, the Crown Prince welcomed me and my delegation of American Evangelical Christian leaders to his palace in Riyadh. This was the first time in more than 300 years that Christian leaders had been invited for discussions in the palace. It was front-page news in every newspaper in the Kingdom, and made big headlines around the world, as well.
I told the Crown Prince when we first met that our delegation of Evangelical leaders were not looking for a photo op, but for a long-term friendship so we could discuss openly and candidly issues of mutual concern. To his credit, he took that seriously. Our team and I have had regular meetings and conversations with senior Saudi officials over the past nine months, and then, at His Royal Highness’ invitation, we came back for this follow-up visit with him and his inner circle in Jeddah.
All these are very positive signs of inter-faith relations and moderation and I am encouraged by how far the Crown Prince has gone in such a short time.
Q. The Crown Prince’s reforms have opened new vistas for dialogue. What in your opinion should major religions of the world do to enhance the dialogue on peace, while building toward a tolerant world?
Rosenberg: For far too long, Saudi Arabia was a closed Kingdom, forbidden to most visitors.
But this is changing. The Crown Prince is acknowledging the mistakes the Kingdom has made in the past, such as being too closed off to the rest of the world.
He’s clearly working around the clock to change both the reality and the perception of the Kingdom. He’s also made it clear that he’s not trying to reform Islam but rather reinstitute moderate Islam that once characterized the Kingdom before 1979.
Let’s be honest — this will not be easy. Many, many reforms are needed. They will take time to implement properly, and there are many who are trying to thwart these reforms.
But I believe the Crown Prince’s Vision 2030 is taking the Kingdom in the right direction. I’m encouraged by the tremendous progress he is already making. And I’m quite optimistic about the Kingdom’s future, in part because I’ve had the chance to see the changes and talk to the Crown Prince about them first-hand.
One of the most important upcoming reforms, in my view, is that the Crown Prince will make tourist visas available for the first time. This means he wants to open up the Kingdom to tourists and foreign investors. This is good. If tourists and investors really do see Saudi Arabia changing — not perfect, by changing for the better — if they see positive, hopeful change, if they are welcome and safe and honored in the best tradition of Arab hospitality, then the sky is the limit for the Kingdom.
As a follower of Jesus Christ, I am commanded in the Bible to love my neighbor and pray for my neighbors. That’s why I accepted the Crown Prince’s invitation to come last year and again this year, despite the criticism against the Kingdom. Saudi Arabia is my neighbor. I want the best for the people and leaders of this Kingdom. Yes, I see the problems. I’m not blind to the mistakes, nor to the criticisms. But I also see real progress. And I want to commend the Kingdom for all the good reforms they are making, even while respectfully urging you to make even bolder reforms.
Religious leaders who are paralyzed by cynicism and are constantly critical are not helpful. If we want to see positive change, we need to praise what is good and build honest and sincere friendships in which we can talk openly and candidly about what is not good.
Q: As one of the major denominations in the US, your group can play a dominant role in fostering understanding and tolerance. What steps do you propose?
Rosenberg: Few Saudis know much about Evangelical Christianity. I hope they will learn more about us over time. There are more than 60 million Evangelicals in the United States, and more than 600 million worldwide.
Evangelicals believe in the teachings of the whole Bible, both the Old and New Testaments. We believe that Jesus is the Messiah. We also believe He is God and that He loves all people and wants every person in the world to know and follow Him.
The Bible teaches Christians to share the love of Jesus Christ with everyone in the whole world, and to encourage them to read the Bible for themselves. The most famous verse in the Bible is found in the Book of John, chapter three, verse 16. It reads, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, and whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life.”
We love that verse, and we live by it. But we are never supposed to force our religion on anyone. Some people have done this in the past, claiming to be Christians. This grieves me, but I can tell you they were not following the model or teachings of Jesus found in the New Testament.
I think there is much we as Evangelicals can learn from the people of Saudi Arabia. And I think that after the Crown Prince invited us twice to the Kingdom there is growing curiosity among Saudis about us and why we seek to be ambassadors of peace and reconciliation.
It would be great to see Saudi scholars — like my friend Sheikh Muhammad Al-Issa of the Muslim World League — speaking at Christian universities and colleges in the United States, and to see Saudi universities inviting Evangelicals to speak to their students and having times of questions and answers.
These types of exchanges could be very encouraging and eye-opening to both sides.
Q. Ignorance is major reason for people’s misunderstanding...of religions and other issues. Do you think education globally should be geared such that a more inclusive thought is made prevalent through this important medium?
Rosenberg: Absolutely. That’s why I believe Muslim and Christian leaders would be wise to speak to young people and let them ask a million questions of us. Education is vital to peacemaking.
Q. You have seen a sea change in the Kingdom, with “development” the buzzword. In your travels in the Kingdom you must have seen a new Kingdom? What are your views of the Kingdom’s future in light of the new steps and reforms?
Rosenberg: The Evangelical leaders I brought to the Kingdom and I are encouraged by all the economic growth and development we have seen, and by the Crown Prince’s Vision 2030 plan for more development.
We absolutely loved visiting NEOM and AlUla. The mountains, deserts and beaches are gorgeous. The Nabatean, Jewish, Christian and Islamic history of the region is so rich and interesting. This, combined with high-tech, futuristic cities, will be fascinating.
Most of the world’s 2 billion Christians — including 600 million Evangelicals — have little idea of how much Biblical history happened on the Arabian Peninsula. They don’t realize that the prophet Moses married the daughter of a Midianite priest, and that the Midianites lived in the northwest region of what we now call Saudi Arabia.
Most Christians don’t realize that the Queen of Sheba came from a Kingdom in the southern part of what we now call Saudi Arabia. Nor do most Christians ever think much about that fact that in the New Testament, we are told that the Apostle Paul — the most famous Christian evangelist in history — spent three years in Arabia. That’s found in the Book of Galatians.
Having seen them for ourselves, we can see why the Crown Prince believes these two provinces will draw tourists from all over the world, and why they are such important elements of his Vision 2030 plan.
Q. To what extent do you see that there is a negative campaign targeting Saudi Arabia as a nation and a leadership?
Rosenberg: Yes, and it’s a serious problem. But let’s start by putting it into context. Osama Bin Laden and the hijackers on 9/11 killed nearly 3,000 Americans. Now, you and I understand that these were evil men. They were not representative of all Saudis. They didn’t even live in Saudi Arabia anymore, but in the caves of Afghanistan. But most Americans start with a very negative view of the Kingdom.
Then came the horrific and unconscionable murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi last October. That story was big news in America for months, and understandably so. It shocked the conscience of everyone. Members of Congress are furious with the Kingdom. So are many Americans.
The enemies of Saudi Arabia have certainly done everything they can to exploit these two stories. The Iranian regime, Turkish President Erdogan, the Al Jazeera network, and members of the Muslim Brotherhood — among others — are working hard and investing a great deal of money to paint all Saudi citizens and leaders as evil and untrustworthy.
So, we need to be realistic. It’s going to take a long time, and many big, game-changing reforms, to change the perception of Americans. Those responsible for the Khashoggi murder are going to have to be put on trial soon and convicted. Justice must be done.
All these reforms are in the national interest of the Kingdom. And as they are accomplished, Americans will see them and reconsider their views of Saudi Arabia.
Americans are a fair and generous people. They want to see the Kingdom change. They want to see Saudi Arabia become the champion of moderate Islam and peace and prosperity in the Middle East.
The more the Crown Prince and his team pursue these reforms with courage and boldness, the sooner the American people will change their perceptions of the Kingdom. But God forbid the reforms in Saudi Arabia should stop or be derailed. This would be disastrous.
Q. Will this visit be followed by other visits in the future?
Rosenberg: I certainly hope so. I am encouraged by the direction the Kingdom is currently moving and I’m praying for even more change to happen soon.
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