'In Jesus' name': Evangelicals meet Mideast leaders
In the office of Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Jerry Johnson of the National Religious Broadcasters led a prayer for bin Salman just days after the killing of Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi, in a visit officially unrelated to Khashoggi's disappearance.
"I prayed for him a Christian prayer … in Jesus' name," Johnson, a Southern Baptist and NRB president, told Baptist Press Jan. 4. Bin Salman "seemed very engaged and affected by the whole thing."
"We got to do something that you couldn't do out on the street," Johnson said. "We shared the Gospel and we prayed in Jesus' name."
Messianic Jewish commentator and bestselling author Joel Rosenberg, who organized the meeting in an ongoing series of trips with evangelicals to the Middle East, was also in the room, along with two other Messianic Jewish leaders including Mike Evans, founder of the Jerusalem Prayer Team.
"For a Jew to be in the palace with the crown prince of Saudi Arabia is a pretty unusual thing," Johnson said. Rosenberg, a dual citizen of the U.S. and Israel, expressed to bin Salman surprise at being invited to the crown prince's office, Johnson told BP, describing Rosenberg's presence as evidence to bin Salman that ethnicity need not determine religious faith.
"Joel was just subtly an illustration that if a Jew can believe in Jesus, an Arab can believe in Jesus," Johnson told BP.
Johnson has participated in two trips Rosenberg has organized, accompanying delegations to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates (UAE) in October 2018.
Khashoggi's death wasn't the focus of the Riyadh meeting, but the delegation discussed it with bin Salman, Johnson said.
Bin Salman said his followers, in defending his monarchy, may have "gone out on their own. He said this was wrong; they'll have to pay the price," Johnson said. Saudi Arabia has arrested 18 people in the Oct. 2 killing, believed to have occurred at the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul. "He said just don't judge before [you] see all the facts."
Though the Khashoggi killing wasn't the focus on their visit, Johnson said, "We wanted [bin Salman] to know though, we thought it was horrible. We thought it was awful, unacceptable. We wanted him to know … we were very concerned about it, and American Christians would be concerned."
Freedom of the press has not been a main subject on the trips, although different countries evoke different agendas, he said. In addition to freedom of religion, educational textbook accuracy and freedom of speech have been discussed.
Mideast religious liberty
After the latest Mideast trip in Rosenberg's series, a January meeting with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Cairo, Rosenberg praised Egypt's construction of the largest Christian church there.
"It's impossible to overstate how historic this is," Rosenberg blogged today (Jan. 7), "a pious Sunni Muslim Arab president builds the largest church in the Middle East and gives it as a Christmas present to the Christians of his country."
El-Sisi presented the Nativity of the Christ Cathedral church to Coptic Christians during a ceremony broadcast live on Egyptian television, accompanied by Rosenberg and 15 other American evangelicals.
Johnson, who wasn't able to travel to Cairo, describes the trips with hope.
"There is a movement I think," Johnson told BP, "in the Middle East among the Jews and the Arabs to engage more with evangelicals.
"In terms of the Saudis, just to have that many evangelical Christians in the palace, talking about the Gospel, churches and what it means to be an evangelical, I thought that was amazing," Johnson said. "You've got to start somewhere."
The UAE is the more progressive religiously of the two countries he has visited, Johnson said, describing a religious freedom spectrum with the U.S. at the top and Saudi Arabia at the bottom.
"United Arab Emirates, of the Arab countries, is doing better than most, and certainly they're moving in the right direction for a majority Muslim country. They've got a long way to go," Johnson said. "You put Saudi Arabia on the far end of that spectrum, down at the end. … There's not even one, as far as we know, public evangelical church in Saudi Arabia."
Johnson led the prayer for bin Salman.
"I quoted from [the biblical book of] Timothy that we are supposed to pray for kings and all who are in authority and give thanks for them, and I said we want to pray for you," Johnson recalled. "He said pray for blessing, because he said, 'If God will bless me, everything else will be fine.' … And he said pray for my enemy in Iran, that God will bless him. He said, 'If God will bless us, good things may happen.'"
The delegation shared the Gospel with bin Salman by defining evangelicalism, Johnson said.
"We believe as evangelicals that Jesus is the Messiah," the delegation told bin Salman. "[Jesus] died on the cross for our sins and rose again. That's how we're forgiven. … It was a way to share the Gospel by telling him what evangelicals were, but we definitely got that in."
Other Southern Baptists accompanying Rosenberg on various trips have included Johnnie Moore, founder of The Kairos Company, and Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council.
Other evangelicals active on the mission are former U.S. Congresswoman Michele Bachmann; public relations executive A. Larry Ross; Michael D. Little, former president and CEO of The Christian Broadcasting Network; Bible teacher Kay Arthur, president of Precepts Ministries International; Skip Heitzig, senior pastor of Calvary Albuquerque in Albuquerque, N.M.; and former NRB President Wayne Pederson.