Though Saudi Arabia has been applauded for opening up a number of Biblical sites to tourists, the question remains: Is the Arab state making progress in the area of religious freedom?
Of course, a meeting between American evangelical leaders and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, which led to the opening up of the sites, could not have been conceived of ten years ago.
Because of this remarkable coming together of two very different religious groups, innumerable tourists — Christians non-Christians alike — will be able to survey wonderful attractions including what experts deem to be the real Mount Sinai — the very location where God gave Moses the 10 Commandments.
However, despite the fact that Christians can now visit the Biblically-significant locations, it is still highly illegal to display a Bible in public. In fact, taking more than one Bible into the country could land you in prison.
Some have suggested the Islamic Republic has softened restrictions on visiting the sites in a bid to warm international relations, after Saudi officials admitted to the murder of dissident Washington Post journalist, Jamal Khashoggi.
Secretive authoritarian regime aside, Saudi Arabia is ranked as the 15th most oppressive place on earth in which to live as a follower of Jesus. Christianity, along with all other non-Islamic faiths, is strictly forbidden under the law.
The country’s fierce blasphemy laws prohibit all forms of religious expression, except for one particular, state-mandated school of Sunni Islam named “Salafism” or “Wahhabism.” Any deviance from prescribed religious observances is met with ruthless punishment under the country’s strict Sharia law. Indeed, Human Rights organizations have on several occasions documented incidences of brutal treatment for those arrested on charges of blasphemy and apostasy — many are sentenced to death.
“In Saudi Arabia, the state creates and maintains a strict Islamic system that treats Christians as second-class citizens,” reads a factsheet from Open Doors USA. “Islam is the only recognized religion. In fact, no other religion can have a place of worship. Consequently, Christians must gather in utter secrecy, if they gather at all.”
While Christians are right to be encouraged by the decision in Saudi Arabia, the country has a long way to go before it will be seen as a nation where followers of Jesus, and those who adhere to non-Islamic faiths, are welcomed and protected.