Saudi Arabia has made unprecedented strides toward religious tolerance just a year after its young new ruler pledged to bring more moderate Islam to the Sunni kingdom
“I was surprised by the pace of change in the country. It reminded me of the verse at the end of Book of Job which says, ‘My ears had heard … but now my eyes have seen,’” said US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) commissioner Johnnie Moore, who has also served as an unofficial liaison between evangelical leaders and the Trump White House.
“It was the first time I have ever thought to myself, Wow, we could actually see religious freedom in Saudi. This is possible.”
Moore represents the highest-profile evangelical leader to meet with the Saudi government since 33-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman announced plans last October to return the restrictive Muslim country to “what we were before: a country of moderate Islam that is open to all religions and to the world.” The USCIRF official formerly worked with Mark Burnett and Roma Downey’s campaign to aid persecuted Christians in the Middle East.
FULL ARTICLE FROM CHRISTIANITY TODAY
An American and an Arab journalist walk into a Saudi consulate, Thomas Friedman in New York and Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul. One comes out smiling ear to ear like Lawrence of Arabia packing for a royal palace near Riyadh and the other disappears into the thin air and widely feared to have been rushed to meet his creator in more than one piece.
Why do the Saudis love the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman and invite him to Mohammed bin Salman’s palace in Riyadh to tickle his Orientalist fantasies, but, if persistent reports by Turkish authorities turn out to be true, they sent a hit team of 15 assassins to beat, torture, murder, and cut to pieces the Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi? No, this cannot be part of the rivalries between our two papers of record. Let us search for a more plausible reason.
FULL ARTICLE FROM AL JAZEERA
Saudi Arabia, or the Arabian Peninsula before the formation of the modern kingdom, has been and remains a place both central and marginal to Muslims around the world.
An Urdu novel published in 1869 by Nazir Ahmad, a writer in Delhi, portrays two young Muslim girls at their geography lesson. As they identify various countries on a map, the girls come across the Arabian Peninsula. Their teacher describes it as an empty space infested by marauding Bedouin, one whose only significance lay in its historical role as the site of Islam’s birth.
The monuments and institutions of Mecca and Medina, the birthplaces of Islam, had always been minor in architectural quality and financial endowment compared with the splendid mosques, tombs and seminaries found at the centers of Muslim power in Baghdad and Cairo, Istanbul and Isfahan, Delhi and Samarkand.
Muslim kings rarely visited Mecca and Medina. Instead, those cities served as places of exile for their enemies.
Saudi Arabia, or the Arabian Peninsula before the formation of the modern kingdom, has been and remains a place both central and marginal to Muslims around the world. Even as Mecca and Medina represent the most important sites of Muslim pilgrimage, the vision of the holy cities as remote and perilous is still reinforced by the occasional stampede of pilgrims during the Hajj.
FULL ARTICLE FROM THE NEW YORK TIMES
As millions travel to Saudi Arabia for the annual Hajj, one Muslim pilgrim reflects on what it meant to her a year on.
I just remember the sheer excitement. A combination of nerves and heightened euphoria. I wasn’t sure how I would feel when I stood before the Ka’bah. Holding my husband’s arm tightly as waves of people overtook us; I was in complete amazement. Considering all the history in this same spot, the footsteps of so many that had travelled before by camel, foot and now, many air miles, I was filled with joy and a surreal sense of peace.
This was the centre of Islam, and the Ka’bah signified a place of unity for Muslims irrespective of background or race. I felt incredibly blessed to be among a fraction of the 1.5 billion Muslims who actually get to be here in person.
This was my first time in the Middle East and so the 44-degree heat was a new sensation to me. I was startled by the Muslim world before me. The incredible diversity of people journeying far and wide was a sight to behold. Many came with little other than unyielding determination and what clothes they had on. They walked for hours in the burning heat, some without shoes. The majority them were also much older than ourselves; our plane journey from Beirut was the first time some of them had ever been on a flight! I loved seeing the bright colours of the Malaysian ladies as they interlocked arms to stay together.
journey began at Mina – a neighbourhood in Mecca – where we stayed in huge white tents with massive Persian-style rugs on the floor. Each encampment was divided by country. I was sharing a space with 70 other ladies, a bit like a really massive sleepover, whilst camping in intense heat. There was a really nice atmosphere inside with everyone sharing stories and snacks, the worries from home felt so far away.
New evidence suggests the Prophet tolerated churches in Arabia
FOR a generation the Saudi antiquities authority has kept it under wraps. The ruins remain out of bounds behind metal gates and wire fencing. A guard shoos the curious away with threats of arrest. But if independent studies are correct, tucked in the dunes and palms near the eastern oilfields lies a 7th-century monastery, the existence of which suggests that Islam once tolerated church-building in Arabia.
Muhammad bin Salman, the modernising crown prince, has defied clerics by allowing cinemas, open-air pop concerts and even female drivers in his puritanical kingdom. But approving churches for the 1.4m Christians in Saudi Arabia risks breaking one taboo too many. “Elsewhere it’s no problem, but two dins, or religions, have no place in the Arabian peninsula,” says a senior prince, reciting a purported saying of the Prophet Muhammad. Churches were expunged by the first community of Muslims 14 centuries ago, he insists.
Excavation at Jubail and other sites along the eastern coast suggests otherwise. Chroniclers record the existence of a synod in a diocese called Beit Qatraye, near Jubail, in 676AD, more than 40 years after the Prophet’s death. Moreover, the peninsula’s six other countries all have churches. Qatar, which follows the same Wahhabi school of Islam as Saudi Arabia, let one be built a decade ago. Bahrain did so in 1906. This year it broke ground on Our Lady of Arabia, a new cathedral.
Saudi exceptionalism matters because the kingdom is home to Islam’s holiest sites and is the prime propagator of the faith. In October Prince Muhammad said he wanted Saudi Arabia to be “open to all religions, traditions and people around the globe”. But off the Saudi coast in Bahrain, Camillo Ballin, the Catholic bishop of Northern Arabia, complains that nothing has changed for Saudi Arabia’s Christians. Private prayer is tolerated, but the public display of Christian symbols is not. Communion in a country that bans wine is problematic. Priests sneak in as cooks or mechanics to tend to their flocks.
FULL ARTICLE FROM THE ECONOMIST