New Signs of Religious Freedom in the Muslim Middle East – Could Saudi Arabia Be Next?

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At a rare Mideast interfaith gathering on Monday, Pope Francis urged religious leaders to work together to reject war as he began the first ever papal visit to the Arabian Peninsula, the birthplace of Islam.

In his speech in front of an audience of religious leaders in the United Arab Emirates, Francis warned that the future of humanity was at stake unless religions come together to resist the “logic of armed power.”

“There is no alternative: we will either build the future together or there will not be a future,” he said. 

“God is with those who seek peace,” he told an audience consisting of Abu Dhabi’s powerful crown prince and hundreds of imams, muftis, ministers, and rabbis. 

Francis’ visit comes as a group of evangelical leaders has been working over the last few years to improve relations with the Muslim world. He’s even being allowed to hold the first Papal Mass on the Arabian Peninsula. A crowd of some 135,000 faithful are expected to attend in a never-before-seen display of public Christian worship.

And the newspaper, The Arab News, was even speculating that Francis could become the first pope to visit Saudi Arabia. 

As CBN News reported, several evangelical leaders say the UAE is a good starting point to promote religious freedom among Muslim countries.

Last October, Family Research Council President Tony Perkins told CBN News he was inspired by the “powerful faith” of Christians in the UAE.

“I am greatly inspired by the powerful faith and determination of Christians in the UAE who have established a remarkable 700 Christian churches and ministries throughout the country,” Perkins said in a statement. “Observing the security and freedom of worship that minority faiths have in the UAE gives me hope for greater expansion of religious freedom in the UAE and for persecuted religious minorities across the Middle East. The UAE is pursuing a path of religious tolerance and peace that I pray other countries in the region would follow.”

The Rev. Johnnie Moore recently said he thinks global interfaith efforts are gradually growing.

Moore serves as a commissioner on the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, president of the Congress of Christian Leaders and an informal spokesperson for the evangelicals who advise the Trump administration. 

Moore told the Religion News Service he’s expecting increased interfaith exchanges between Christians, Muslims and Jews, and even the Hindu community, stating efforts may even include “the very real possibility that 2019 will likely be the year one or more majority-Muslim, and even Arab, countries – while remaining ever supportive of a Palestinian state – will decide that a resolution to the Israeli and Palestinian conflict is not a mandatory prerequisite for detente if not full-on diplomatic relations with the State of Israel.”

Last November, Moore and other Christian leaders visited the Muslim majority nation of Azerbaijan and were encouraged by how by how people of various faiths and backgrounds seemed to peacefully co-exist in the country. The country has a 90 percent Muslim population. 

“I met Sunni and Shia young people who pray together, orthodox and evangelical Christians who serve together,” he wrote in a statement. “And I observed the valued and indispensable role a thriving Jewish community plays in a country whose population is over 90 percent Muslim but whose people have celebrated a longstanding relationship between their nation and the State of Israel.”

As CBN News also reported that same month, the UAE was also where a US delegation of evangelical leaders met with controversial Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman and other Saudi leaders. 

“We aren’t here for a short-term purpose. We are not here for a photo op. We could care less about that. We’re here to build long-term relations and to benefit our brothers and sisters that are here in this region,” former Congresswoman Michele Bachmann said.