Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

Inside the evangelical mission to build the first church in Saudi Arabia, the home of Islam, where preaching the Bible can land you in jail


FEB 8, 2021


·Saudi Arabia, the home of Islam, has outlawed churches and punished Christian worship for decades.

·The kingdom’s 1.4 million Christians meet in secret, but authorities are signalling more openness.

·This is the inside story of the American mission to woo MBS to build the kingdom’s first church.

On a sunny, cloudless October morning in 2019, twenty-five American Christians gathered at the base of Jabal al-Lawz, an umber-coloured mountain in northwest Saudi Arabia.

Jabal al-Lawz Credit: Destinotes

Their leader, the evangelical author and preacher Joel Richardson, took out a Bible he’d brought from back home in Kansas, and started to read out loud.

Soon after, he and his congregation began singing hymns, while their hired Saudi tour guides pulled out their smartphones, and started to film.

Richardson was leading the first-ever Christian tour to Saudi Arabia, the home of Islam where the public practice of any other religion is famously forbidden.

Still, the preacher was taken aback when his phone rang that evening. It was the State Department with a message: “Be careful.”

Richardson is to this day bemused. “I guess some of the videos went viral on Saudi social media or something,” he told Insider in a recent interview.

Saudi Arabia is liberalizing, but Christians still worship underground.

The scene at Jabal al-Lawz, which some Christians believe to be the true location of Mount Sinai, illustrates the rapid social change underway in Saudi Arabia, as well as the dangers that still face the 1.4 million Christians living there.

In the past decade, those caught in the act of worship have been punished, arrested, jailed, or deported, and the sight of Christians brandishing Bibles and singing hymns in broad daylight would have riled many devout Muslims.

In 2014, the kingdom’s religious police deported 12 Ethiopian Christians caught worshipping in Dammam in February, and raided a home in September after hearing it was used for church services, the State Department said. In 2011, 35 Christians were arrested at a private gathering in Jeddah, Human Rights Watch reported, adding that 29 women among them were “subjected to arbitrary body cavity searches.”

Rosenberg and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Franck Fife/Getty; MBS by Embassy of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia/AP; iStock; Skye Gould/InsiderJoel

Saudi Arabia’s millennial crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman - known also by his initials, MBS - has reformed his country since taking power in 2017. Yet advances in religious freedom have come slowly, clearly posing a more existential issue for the crown prince to tackle than mass tourism, Hollywood blockbusters, or music festivals.

“There are no churches here,” one Christian who has lived in Saudi Arabia all her adult life told Insider. “We choose to lay low in respect to their culture and religion.” The person requested anonymity over fears for her safety, but her identity is known to Insider.

As more non-Muslim expats arrive for work, the kingdom has increasingly turned a blind eye to their faith - neutering the religious police in 2016 - while maintaining that Bible preaching or proselytizing Muslims is unacceptable.

But MBS has also enforced a near-total silencing of opposition to his rule, comprising arbitrary detentions, bot armies, alleged assassinations, alleged murder, and widespread efforts to spy on or hack opponents at home and abroad.

The State Department’s warning to Richardson was clear: As a Christian in Saudi Arabia, tread carefully.

A years long courtship

The US government has for years asked Saudi Arabia to end the ban on churches, with little success.

“I have gone there and talked to top leaders about opening up a church for these people and they have always said, ‘Saudi Arabia is different and it is the land of the two holiest shrines of Islam,'” Nina Shea, a former US Commissioner on International Religious Freedom, told Insider. “The whole country is a shrine, in a sense, and therefore they cannot have a church built.”

David Rundell, a former chief of mission at the US Embassy in Riyadh, added: “It’s something that we have spoken to the Saudis about on numerous occasions.”

Since MBS’s ascension, a group of US evangelical heavyweights have taken the baton. In October 2018, Joel Rosenberg, one of America’s prominent evangelical authors, accepted an invitation from the prince to meet him in Riyadh.

With Rosenberg came the Rev. Johnnie Moore, a religious advisor to President Donald Trump, and a string of other televangelists. (Trump’s 2016 victory was largely thanks to eva