RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
In recent months, delegations of evangelical Christians have been traveling to the Middle East, meeting with leaders of Islamic countries and Muslim clergy. They say it's about promoting religious freedom. Critics say the true motives are rooted in end-times theology. Jerome Socolovsky reports.
JEROME SOCOLOVSKY, BYLINE: When the evangelical delegation met with Saudi Arabia's crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, in early November, the Christian Broadcasting Network's Chris Mitchell noted their influence in his on-the-spot report.
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CHRIS MITCHELL: And the delegation, which represents millions of Christians, met with the crown prince and other senior leaders.
SOCOLOVSKY: That meeting followed audiences with the president of Egypt, the king of Jordan and Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan of the United Arab Emirates. Johnnie Moore runs an evangelical PR firm and is a former vice president of Liberty University. He goes on many of these trips and is impressed with the faith of the people he meets.
JOHNNIE MOORE: As a devout evangelical Christian, I believe what the New Testament says. You know, Jesus is my savior. I believe he's the way, right? But when every time an imam or leader of a Muslim nation - when they begin a speech and they say, in the name of God, the compassionate and the merciful - you know, that speaks to me.
SOCOLOVSKY: Moore hopes the trips promote religious freedom in the Middle East. He says they're not about opening the doors to Christian missionaries.
MOORE: All we want is for what it was like when the Prophet Muhammad, you know, himself was alive, which was a very pluralistic region. You know, there were Christians and Jews. There were synagogues, and there were churches.
SOCOLOVSKY: The meetings come amid a relative thaw in relations between these countries and Israel, who all view Iran as a serious threat. John Fea, a history professor at Messiah College in Pennsylvania, says these trips are about both religion and politics.
JOHN FEA: All of these people have a deep and vested interest in what happens to Israel. They are all operating under a particular form of Christian theology that privileges a future place for Israel in sort of end times prophecy.
SOCOLOVSKY: According to that prophecy, Fea says, Israel's establishment in 1948 was a harbinger of the second coming of Jesus, and any development that strengthens the Jewish state could make it happen sooner. Fea says many of the Christian leaders are frequently seen at the White House. He says what bothers him is that they didn't challenge the Saudi crown prince about the war in Yemen and other human rights abuses.
FEA: These pro-Trump evangelicals tend to see religious freedom and religious liberty as more important than these other injustices at this moment, and that's where my criticism falls.
SOCOLOVSKY: Participants in the trip insist they did ask Mohammed bin Salman about the slaying of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. They also say their meetings open an important channel of Muslim-Christian dialogue and counter religious extremism.
JOEL ROSENBERG: The question is not about what is going to happen in the end of days. The question is, what's going to happen tomorrow?
SOCOLOVSKY: That's Joel Rosenberg, the organizer of the delegations. He's a Christian author who writes novels about apocalyptic battles in the Middle East, such as his "Last Jihad" series. He says he has nothing to hide.
ROSENBERG: I'm an open book, literally. I've sold five million copies of these books. Some of them deal with prophecy; some do not. But I'm very open and I'm very Googleable on the topic.
SOCOLOVSKY: Whether or not these trips to the Middle East accomplish what the participants hope, their positive statements about Islam are certainly a departure from the negative views of many other conservative evangelicals.
Jerome Socolovsky, NPR News.
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