SAUDI ARABIA MODERNISING BUT WILL IT MEAN GREATER RELIGIOUS FREEDOM
New freedoms for women in Saudi Arabia include being able to drive, visit sporting events, divorce, or even join the army. The political landscape in the Islamic Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is quickly changing. A charismatic crown prince seems determined to modernise his country and even speaks of a shift towards a more “moderate” Islam. But will the changes taking place in Saudi also ease the situation for members of non-Islamic faiths? In Saudi Arabia, other religions or traditions enjoy little freedom. No churches or Christian symbols of any kind are allowed anywhere. In theory, foreign Christians are permitted to organise their own, small-scale meetings, as long as they don’t cause any “disturbance”.
However, raids on secret churches in private homes, sometimes called “house churches” still occur, while Christian maids and nannies, many of whom are foreign citizens from other countries, are rarely allowed to leave their houses at all, making it impossible for them to go to church. For native Saudis, meanwhile, becoming a Christian is almost impossible. Apostasy from Islam is, in theory at least, punishable by death. In practice, most converts keep their newfound faith a complete secret from their families, for fear of being disowned, abused or even killed by their relatives. The huge social pressure makes it extremely difficult for the small number of indigenous Christians to meet, increasing their isolation.
Crown prince Mohammad bin Salman, 32, is a phenomenon in Saudi Arabia. Young, idealistic, energetic and modern, in the last year he has made huge efforts to raise his profile, both locally and internationally, through headline-grabbing reforms such as opening cinemas, and allowing women to drive, visit sporting events and, most recently, leave their husbands or even join the army. With oil revenues declining, the crown prince is aiming to make his country less dependent on it. In modernising Saudi society, he is seeking to draw more foreign investors to develop the retail and tourism industries.
In his wave of reforms, he has also taken on longstanding issues such as corruption. In a dramatic purge at the end 2017, dozens of members of Saudi Arabia’s political and business elite, including several princes, ministers and business tycoons, were rounded up and arrested on corruption charges, only to be released after paying the equivalent of millions, or even billions, of dollars in fines. His adversaries blame the young crown prince of using his fight against corruption as an excuse to take down his political opponents. However, the majority of Saudis seem to support the crackdown, since many of them reap little personal benefit from the country’s huge oil profits.
In a recent speech, the future king also announced his plans for a correction of the highly fundamentalist Wahhabi Islamic theology that has defined Saudi society for the last 40 years. Speaking to investors in Riyadh in October 2017, Bin Salman unveiled his plan to implement a “moderate, balanced Islam that is open to the world and to all religions and all traditions and peoples”. The new crown prince may be progressive, but his critics say that “MBS”, as the crown prince is called locally, is simply seeking to reposition Saudi Arabia as the most dominant country in the region, by any means necessary.
They say that by engaging in bloody proxy wars in Syria and Yemen, he is attempting to bring Iran’s expansionism to a halt. In Yemen, the ongoing Saudi bombings to weaken the Iran-backed Houthi rebels have caused thousands of civilian casualties, and Saudi’s continuing interference in its neighbouring country has contributed to what the UN has warned is in danger of becoming the world’s worst humanitarian disaster for 50 years. A staff member at the Christian charity Open Doors International recently spoke with three foreign Christians in Saudi, who gave their perspectives on the changes taking place within the country.
“Change is in the air. That is for sure,” said one Christian, originally from the West, who compared the period with the Arab Spring that engulfed the Middle East at the start of the decade. “Everything is changing. Some people are more open to the Christian message, but others are radicalising. “This is a crossroads. If it works, it will bring huge change and more freedom to this country. If it fails, Saudi might be the next Yemen, only worse. If the fundamentalists win the battle that is now being fought behind the curtains and spark a civil war, this place will go back to the dark ages. So, this is either going to be a huge spiritual awakening or it will be one of the biggest bloodbaths in history.”
But he added that political developments had at least shifted the focus away from Christians in Saudi, saying: “Christians are plankton compared to the whales that are now being hunted. So, they simply don’t have time to care. As long as Christians keep their heads low and don’t get themselves reported to the government, they will be fine.” A second foreign Christian in Saudi, an Indian pastor, said Christians’ lives had become easier since the Muttawah, Saudi’s religious police department, was stripped of its authority to make arrests in 2016. “Before that, nobody could carry a Bible in the streets without getting arrested and harassed,” he said. “Now we can.”
“Before, it was very dangerous for a non-Christian to visit a Christian meeting, but now there is less fear.” He said that as Saudis and Indians don’t usually mingle, it remains unlikely that a Saudi Muslim would visit an Indian church service, “but the trend is that people are less fearful”. Another Christian, working and living in a rural part of the country, said he remains pessimistic about the effect of the crown prince’s new policies and warned of the effects of “too much change at once”. “Change can lead to disruption. No-one knows what will happen if large groups of people start feeling left behind in their own country,” he said. “But a repressive religious system can cause people to ask questions.”
“Look at what is happening in Iran, the more Christians are persecuted, the more the Church grows. If Saudi would adopt a more moderate form of Islam, that might actually be more difficult to turn away from than a very strict Islam.” Many Saudis have already turned their backs on the strict, fundamentalist Islam that defines the teaching in Saudi’s mosques, but they still go to the mosque and pray because it’s the cultural norm. “Many ‘lukewarm’ Muslims don’t like the Islam of the narrow-minded and are fed-up with the hypocrisy of it,” he said. “They are not interested in any form of religion. They start living secular lives, focusing on getting a job, a family, kids and good vacations. Nothing to do with God.”
The Syrian conflict has consumed the world’s news headlines since it began in March 2011. For Christians in Syria, the war that has lasted nearly eight years. And whilst the fighting isn’t over, we still believe there’s hope. The Islamic State have been dispersed from their Syrian strongholds; the city of Aleppo is on its way to recovery; and Christians are returning home to parts of the country to rebuild their lives and their communities. God has not given up on Syria. We continue to hear that He is on the move, and that the gospel is breaking through barriers in this country torn apart by war. We asked our local partners how we can pray. Here’s what they told us:
1. Pray For Women In Aleppo
Pray for the women in Syria who are now on their own, especially for those with children at home. Many men have died in the war or left the country. Also praise God for around 70 women who were able to attend an event giving them skills to earn a living. “At the end of the event, all women received a crown because they are all queens of something,” said 20-year-old Sandy, who helped organise the event.
2. Praise God For New Jobs
Through the local church, Open Doors has been providing Syrians with new opportunities to earn an income through farms, factories, pharmacies, bee-keeping and other types of businesses. We also want to provide micro-loans. “We now focus on these other projects; we need to prepare the people for the future.” Father Sami said.
3. Pray For The Church
Several churches in Syria plan to open ‘Centres of Hope’ supported by Open Doors. These centres will equip churches to care for their people and serve the wider community through ministry, servant leadership, Biblical discipleship, job creation and trauma counselling. In 2018, we hope to have 20 centres running, each serving 500 to 1,000 families across Syria. Pray these centres will bring hope.
4. Pray For The Elderly
Elderly people in Syria are extremely vulnerable. Their children have relocated because of the war and have had to leave behind their aged parents. Many are left with almost no support. Thank God for the church and local organisations who continue to help.
5. Pray For The Next Generation
“What impacted me most was talking about emotions and formulating a life goal,” he said. “Those were new things for me. I learned better how to respond to the big questions that young people have and how to think outside the box. The courses have helped me to understand and apply the Bible and also to teach this to others.” Thank God for leaders like Danny who stayed in Syria to bring hope for the next generation. Pray that leaders will see fruit from their work and will impact many Syrian children.
6. Pray For Leaders
Father Sami, a church leader in Aleppo, believes the church has an important task to do. “We want to create understanding between the different religious groups in the country,” he said, adding that the church has started a clinic, distribution and educational centre in Eastern Aleppo. “It is the first time the church has a presence in this Muslim environment,” he said. Pray for wisdom for church leaders as they bring God’s peace into their community and lead their congregations.
7. Pray For Safety
Pray for the return of two Christian bishops, Yohanna Ibhrahim and Boulos Yazigi. They were kidnapped five years ago and haven’t been heard from since. Pray for their churches as they hold on to the hope of their return.
8. Praise God That Help Makes A Difference
Many people have found jobs through income-generating projects started in Syria. Elay found work as a pharmacist, and now works in a pharmacy founded by Open Doors supporters. “This is a very good opportunity for me,” she said. “It’s very comfortable to have a job and an income now.” Pray for projects like this one, that the Lord will give wisdom to those who need to decide about funding.
9. Pray For Syria
Pray for the Christians who chose to stay in Syria. Pray for the priests and pastors, and for the church members who made the choice to remain and serve God in their home land. Pray that God will give them the strength to continue and that He will impart wisdom to all involved in helping those in need.
ARCHBISHOP OF CANTERBURY TAKES STAND AGAINST SHARIA
The mouse has roared. In his new book Reimagining Britain, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has said that Sharia should never become part of the British legal system because it is incompatible with British laws. High levels of Muslim immigration, he says, have led many to challenge majority values, especially in family life. He wants Britain instead to uphold the values founded upon its own principles and Christian inheritance. It is certainly a reversal of the position taken by the archbishop’s predecessor, Lord Williams, who said in 2008 that he backed the introduction of Sharia in Britain and argued that adopting some of its aspects seemed “unavoidable”.
Those few churchmen who have taken a robust stand against Islam in Britain have been denounced as sowing unnecessary division. In 2004 Lord Williams’s predecessor, Lord Carey, said that although the vast majority of Muslims were “honourable and good people who hate violence”, Islam stood in opposition to “practically every other world religion”. For this he came under fire from within his own church for “rattling the cage”. Although Sharia has no legal authority in Britain, there are many Muslim enclaves where it operates. This is despite its principles, such as the death penalty for apostasy, punishment for homosexuality and the threats to personal safety meted out to British Muslim women.
This all led the European Court of Human Rights to state in 2003 that “Sharia is incompatible with the fundamental principles of democracy”. Yet Britain has allowed it nevertheless, to develop as a parallel form of jurisdiction, in practice if not in law. This is due to a combination of fear and confusion over how to deal with minorities. Multiculturalism, which has held sway for decades, affords equal status to all cultures. Yet respect for human life, equality for women, freedom of speech and worship and so on, are not universal but western values rooted in the Bible. Moreover, the basic principle of a liberal democracy is one law for all.
Minorities are welcome to establish communities of faith and culture but these must not conflict with the country’s fundamental laws and values. In order to safeguard a nation’s cultural identity, there must be a line between, on the one hand, upholding its basic precepts and, on the other, tolerance of minority faiths and cultures. Preventing the imposition of Sharia is where that line needs to be drawn over Islam. The archbishop identifies other signs of cultural decay arising from the loss of coherent national identity: “a rootless and self-protective society without generosity, arising from a lack of confidence.” His analysis of this, however, lacks the clarity of his views about Sharia.
Showing too much woolly thinking over issues such as climate change or family breakdown, his argument fails to hone in on the Christian basis of the culture. Across Europe Christianity is in retreat, creating a vacuum that is being filled by Islamic cultural colonialism. For religion is essential for cultural coherence. Our increasingly post-Christian society makes the widespread assumption that secularism promotes freedom and equality while Christianity merely divides us. In fact, freedom and equality are Biblical precepts that bind us together. It is secularism that has divided us into groups jostling for power over each other and which has shattered our sense of a shared national project.
This process has been assisted by the pusillanimity of the Church of England itself. Over the past half century, having internalised the view that traditional belief was no longer possible in a secular age, the church sought instead to help remake society at home and abroad. Influenced by the anti-capitalist stance of the World Council of Churches, it swallowed the view that Christian values were no better, and possibly worse, than those of other cultures. In this demoralised state, it maintained a shameful silence over the savage Muslim persecution of Christians across the developing world, while seeking vainly to appease such fanaticism by minimising or denying the differences between Christianity and Islam.
In 2002, the Archbishop of Canterbury convened a multi-faith seminar called Building Bridges. Papers presented by some Muslim and Christian scholars suggested equivalence, even unity, between Islam and Christianity. Bishop Kenneth Cragg stated: “Magnificat and Allahu akbar are the sure doxologies with which our two faiths begin”, while the former Birmingham lecturer in Islamic studies David Kerr explained radical Islam “as a form of liberation theology”. In 2007, Dr Margaret Brearley, a scholar of inter-faith relations wrote: “The rapprochement of Anglicanism and Islam has encouraged a process in which any critique of Islamic nationalism or Islamism is either extremely muted or completely absent.”