Crown prince Mohammad bin Salman’s sudden rise to power has undoubtedly changed Saudi Arabia in many ways — some which could mean greater freedoms for Christians living in the Islamic country.
The kingdom has already become slightly more open than it was in the past, evidenced by the fact that women will be allowed to drive next year and the king’s meeting with a Coptic Orthodox patriarch for the first time ever. At the same time, there are a few reasons to be less than optimistic about Mohammad bin Salman and his ambitious agenda.
Mohammad bin Salman recently proclaimed that he wants a “moderate, balanced Islam that is open to the world and to all religions and all traditions and peoples.”
This is an astounding declaration considering that Saudi Arabia is the only country in the entire world that does not have a single church building. Open Doors ranks the country as one of the top 15 most repressive countries in the world.
While there are close to 1.5 million Christians in the nation, Saudi Arabian nationals that convert to Christianity experience intense persecution from family and friends. Migrant workers, who make up a large share of the Christian population, are often mistreated by their Saudi bosses.
What is more, Mohammad bin Salman is showing that he is willing to not only talk about freedom of religion but also do something to help make it happen. Scores of religious clerics were recently detained and instructed to speak out in favor of respecting other religions. Religious extremists in government positions have been dismissed from their posts, and the country’s powerful religious police no longer have the authority to arrest Saudi citizens.
At the same time, it is important to note that Mohammad bin Salman’s main motive in bringing about reform is not a passion for religious freedom. He knows that about 70% of the country’s population is under 30, and that many people in this age bracket have few opportunities and are tired of the endemic corruption in the country. The crown prince is also aware of that people have more internet and social media access than ever before, making it easy for his countrymen to see that they don’t have to simply accept the current state of affairs.
Mohammad bin Salman’s bid to create a tolerance religious environment goes hand in hand with his efforts to modernize the country so that it does not rely solely on oil for the majority of its income.
Christian leaders in countries around Saudi Arabia note that increased freedom of religion in Saudi Arabia will positively impact freedom of religion in the Middle East as a whole. Saudi Arabia is well-known for pushing its Wahhabi version of Islam around the world; the downfall of Wahhabism in its home country would reduce pressure on other neighboring Muslim nations to crack down on other religions.
Unfortunately, not all of Mohammad bin Salman’s opinions and actions can be viewed as positive. He has always been a strong advocate for Saudi Arabia’s current war with Yemen, a conflict that has turned into a humanitarian disaster which has left the overwhelming majority of people in the nation in need of humanitarian assistance. His desire to stoke tensions with Iran is clear as he recently insulted the country’s Supreme Leader by calling him a “new Hitler.”
If the crown prince gets his way and manages to start a war with Iran, the consequences would most likely be deadly for Iran’s 800,000 Christians. The wars in Iraq and Syria brought about increased persecution of Christians, and there is little reason to believe that a war with Iran would be any different.
Naturally, it is impossible to predict the future of an entire country or region based on one powerful person’s current opinions and actions. However, it is clear to see that Mohammad bin Salman’s rise to power could bring a lot of long-term positive change in Saudi Arabia by enabling Christians to worship and even witness far more freely than was possible in times past.
While this is definitely good news for Christians in the Middle East, the crown prince’s ambitions and recent actions could further destabilize a region historically beset by violence.
~ 1776 Christian