Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s charm offensive in New York allegedly involved meeting Oprah Winfrey, which may be the only canny thing I’ve ever heard of him doing. He also had some religious leaders over to his condominium in New York City to stress the importance of religious tolerance.

He may be sincere, but here is an area where he has to put his money where his mouth is.

Saudi Arabia is not religiously tolerant. It is religiously intolerant in ways that contradict Islam and give the religion a bad name. Muslim-majority countries such as Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt have lots of churches and Christmas festivities.

Saudi Arabia has none?

Saudi Arabia has none.

You can’t even blame the Wahhabi or Unitarian strain of Islam favored by Riyadh for this problem, though its traditional texts are not innocent in it.

Neighboring Wahhabi Qatar has a clause in its constitution guaranteeing freedom of religion.

Saudi Arabia does not.

Qatar has licensed churches for its Filipino guest workers.

Saudi Arabia has not.

I was wandering around the back alleys of Dubai one time and came upon a small Hindu temple. There are hundreds of thousands of Hindus in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. You’d be more likely to find a unicorn in Saudi Arabia than a Hindu temple. But note that nearby Hindu-majority India has a huge Muslim minority and mosques all over the place.

Bin Salman’s hypocrisy is not a new thing in Saudi policy. Under the last king, Riyadh established a King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue in Vienna. That’s great, and from all accounts the center has done good work.

But if bin Salman wants to be taken seriously on religious tolerance, he has to bring the principle home from Vienna. He has already slashed the power of the bigoted religious police who controlled public behavior on Saudi streets. Sometimes they have been more interested in enforcing gender segregation than in allowing firefighters to get to the scene of a conflagration, putting women at risk or even becoming responsible for their deaths. The old Saudi religious police would not like religious tolerance.

Not only members of other religions, but other Muslims, including Shiites (15 percent of the Saudi population), non-Wahhabi Sunnis and Sufis, have often felt persecution. Some observers think that Saudi Arabia is only 40 percent Wahhabi, but it is that sect that sets state policy.

So bin Salman would be better not to open his mouth on the subject until Christmas can be celebrated at a church in Riyadh, as it is at churches throughout the Muslim world. And as Muslim Eids are commemorated at mosques throughout the Christian world.

Ironically enough, the Qur’an, the scripture revered by Muslims, has poignant passages about Jesus’s nativity longer than the accounts in the New Testament. But the people of Jesus can’t commemorate that nativity publicly in bin Salman’s Muslim country.


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