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Evangelicals Seek Detente With Mideast Muslim Leaders As Critics Doubt Motives

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman meets with a delegation of U.S. evangelical Christian leaders in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in November.
Bandar Algaloud
Courtesy of Saudi Royal Court/Handout via Reuters
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman meets with a delegation of U.S. evangelical Christian leaders in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in November.

In recent months, evangelical Christian leaders have been traveling to the Middle East to meet with rulers of Islamic countries and with Muslim clergy.

The participants say the meetings — especially one they had in November with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — are unprecedented, and aimed at promoting religious freedom in the region.

Johnnie Moore, a public relations consultant and a former vice president of Liberty University, has been on many of the trips. He says they are not about easing the way for Christian missionaries, as some critics allege.

"All we want is for what it was like when the Prophet Muhammad himself was alive, which was a very pluralistic region," he says. "There were Christians and Jews, there were synagogues and there were churches."

The evangelicals have also had audiences with Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed al Nahyan of the United Arab Emirates, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi of Egypt and King Abdullah of Jordan.

Moore, whom President Trump appointed last May to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, says he's impressed with the faith of the Muslims he's met.

"As a devout evangelical Christian, I believe what the New Testament says. Jesus is my savior," Moore says. "But every time an imam or a leader of a Muslim nation — when they begin a speech, and they say, 'In the name of God, the compassionate, and the merciful,' that speaks to me!' "

Other evangelicals on the trips include former U.S. Congresswoman Michele Bachman; Jerry A. Johnson, president and CEO of National Religious Broadcasters; and Michael Little, former president and COO of The Christian Broadcasting Network.

Larry Ross, who was Billy Graham's spokesman for more than three decades, recalls that the late preacher often met leaders of other faiths when he was on what he called international crusades.

"He didn't preach, he didn't proselytize. He just loved them," says Ross, who has also been meeting the Muslim leaders. "And so I think that this is very similar."

The U.S. evangelicals' meetings come amid a relative thaw in relations between Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Muslim countries on the one hand and Israel on the other, all of whom view Iran as a serious threat.

When the evangelicals were in the United Arab Emirates, the Israeli national anthem was played at a judo tournament won by an Israeli competitor. That was viewed by many in the U.S. delegation as a sign of change in the region. It was also enthusiastically highlighted by the reporter covering the visit for the Christian Broadcasting Network, in a story titled "Freedom Is Unfolding in This Arab Country."

Beyond religious freedom

But John Fea, a history professor at Messiah College in Pennsylvania, says religious freedom is not the only thing on the minds of the evangelicals.

These pro-Trump evangelicals tend to see religious freedom as more important than these other injustices at this moment.

"All of these people have a deep and vested interest in what happens to Israel," he says. "They are all operating under a particular form of Christian theology that privileges a future place for Israel in a sort of end times prophecy."

According to that set of beliefs, Israel's establishment in 1948 was a harbinger of the Second Coming of Jesus — and any development that strengthens the Jewish state could make it happen sooner.

Fea, an evangelical himself and critic of the conservative politics of these religious leaders, notes many of the people on these trips to the Middle East are also frequently seen at the White House.

He says what bothers him is that they didn't challenge the Saudi crown prince about the war in Yemen and other human rights abuses.

"These pro-Trump evangelicals tend to see religious freedom as more important than these other injustices at this moment," Fea says. "That's where my criticism falls."

Participants in the trips insist they do address human rights issues, and say their first question to Mohamed bin Salman was about the slaying of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. They also say their meetings open an important channel of Muslim-Christian dialogue and help counter religious extremism.

"The question is not what's going to happen in the end of days. The question is what's going to happen tomorrow," says Joel Rosenberg, the organizer of the delegations. Rosenberg is a Jerusalem-based Christian author who writes novels about apocalyptic battles in the Middle East, such as his Last Jihadseries.

And he says he has nothing to hide.

"I'm an open book. Literally," he says with a chuckle. "I've sold 5 million copies of these books. Some of them deal with prophecies, some do not. But I'm very open and I'm very Googleable on the topic."

Whether these trips to the Middle East accomplish what the participants hope, their positive statements about Islam are certainly a departure from the negative views of many other conservative evangelicals.

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Jerome Socolovsky is the Audio Storytelling Specialist for NPR Training. He has been a reporter and editor for more than two decades, mostly overseas. Socolovsky filed stories for NPR on bullfighting, bullet trains, the Madrid bombings and much more from Spain between 2002 and 2010. He has also been a foreign and international justice correspondent for The Associated Press, religion reporter for the Voice of America and editor-in-chief of Religion News Service. He won the Religion News Association's TV reporting award in 2013 and 2014 and an honorable mention from the Association of International Broadcasters in 2011. Socolovsky speaks five languages in addition to his native Spanish and English. He holds a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Pennsylvania, and graduate degrees from Hebrew University and the Harvard Kennedy School. He's also a sculler and a home DIY nut.