Yet one could see his group’s decision to sit down with MbS at such a precarious moment as legitimizing the kingdom’s human-rights violations. Moore and I discussed that risk, as well as his impressions of the crown prince, whom he described as philosophical and introspective. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Sigal Samuel: What was the goal of your trip?
Johnnie Moore: Evangelicals are now 60 million in the United States, and there are at least 600 million around the world. It’s one of the largest segments of the Christian Church. So for a group of evangelicals to be invited for a dialogue in what has long been considered one of the most restrictive countries in the world as it relates to religious freedom, that’s really important to us.
Religious freedom was the focus. We all had the opportunity to ask questions along the way, and my specific questions related to churches in Saudi Arabia. Of course, right now, there isn’t a single church building, there’s certainly not a synagogue, it’s a country full of countless thousands of mosques. … That’s not to say there isn’t worship of other kinds that takes place quietly, in people’s homes. … But when it comes to public worship it’s a different story.
Samuel: What did MbS say about the possibility of churches being built in the kingdom?
Moore: He said, “I’m not prepared to do that now. And the reason is because it’s the one thing that al-Qaeda and [the Islamic State] and the terrorists want. If I did it now, bombs would fall, and it would not be the right thing for the safety of our people.” … He made the point that it would embolden the terrorists and extremists, so you shouldn’t plan on it anytime in the future.
I found it to be a thoughtful, logical response even though it’s not the response I hoped for. … It wasn’t this visceral anti-Christian sentiment.
On the contrary, he made it a point to mention the wonderful meetings he’d had with the Coptic pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury. … You can’t deny the significance of those actions. And I think they were not actions principally meant to send a message to the West. They were principally meant to send a message within his own country, that this is an appropriate and reasonable thing for Saudi leaders to do. And I believe that even more because it fits into the greater context of our discussion, which was about very strategic actions they’re taking to move the country in the direction of reform.
Samuel: Did you ask MbS about the murder of Jamal Khashoggi?
Moore: It was the first question we asked. We knew we were going in this context … so we weren’t going to dodge it. We just asked it outright. He was totally consistent with what he’d said publicly before—he said this is a terrible and heinous act and they were going to find and prosecute everyone involved with it. He emphatically denied involvement.