Imad Shehadeh’s phone would not stop ringing. His American guest, part of a delegation invited by the king of Jordan, had called his royal host a bigot.

In November 2017, the president of Jordan Evangelical Theological Seminary had facilitated a sit-down between local evangelicals and an American delegation bound for a meeting with King Abdullah. Headed by novelist Joel Rosenberg, the US group included several pro-Israel Christians close to President Donald Trump, as well as Mike Evans, a self-proclaimed Christian Zionist leader and founder of the Friends of Zion Heritage Center in Israel.

The Jordanians were somewhat wary. Though Jordan has a peace treaty with Israel, both Muslims and traditional Christians oppose normalizing relations until the Palestinian issue is solved. Jordanian evangelicals, while legally registered and in fair standing with the government, have not been admitted into the National Council of Churches and are often regarded with suspicion over American links.

Meanwhile, Rosenberg was also cultivating a relationship—even friendship—with King Abdullah, coming at his direct invitation. The Americans conveyed Jordanian evangelicals’ great appreciation for Abdullah’s leadership but also politely spoke of a few issues facing the minority community.

One year later, the king was awarded the $1.3 million Templeton Prize for his pioneering efforts to denounce terrorism while strengthening relations between Muslims and Christians.

Evans responded with an op-ed in the Jerusalem Post calling out Abdullah for hypocrisy. Intelligence agents were infiltrating Bible studies and denying visa renewal to evangelical Christian pastors, he wrote. And a Jordanian Baptist was having his ministry dismantled amid accusations of proselytizing.

Shehadeh responded quickly to support Abdullah. Rosenberg was livid at the op-ed and says he reached out to apologize to the king. But Evans says he spent a year communicating with the royal court behind the scenes only to watch matters get worse.

“What do I want more? Access to King Abdullah or to stand up for what is right?” Evans said in an interview with CT. “In the world of power, you can easily become blinded and excuse things.”

Evans said this access was granted because of the king’s hope to gain influence through the delegation’s proximity to Trump. He did not want the relationship to be one-sided while watching Abdullah praised for his tolerance.

Shehadeh says Jordanian evangelicals, by contrast, have had very limited access to the king. Rosenberg’s delegation of American evangelicals represented something new—controversial, yet promising.

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“Christians need to be more thankful for the privileges they have,” Shehadeh said, “but also be more patient to obtain rights they feel they do not have.”

The ancient diplomatic questions over carrots and sticks, praise and criticism, are common to advocacy efforts in the Muslim world, suggested Johnnie Moore of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom.

“In my experience, whenever things get complicated, it is due to a misunderstanding,” he said. “Everything in the Middle East has to do with trust. It is of greater currency than oil.”

Humility is key, he said. Often Moore discovers his private recommendations would create additional problems. Working behind the scenes over time produces the best outcomes, he said.

Andy Thompson, a British evangelical Anglican, had regular contact with Emirati royalty in Abu Dhabi while overseeing 45 congregations of 10,000 worshipers representing 17 languages. He witnessed the expansion of church building and religious freedom, culminating in the visit of Pope Francis and the declaration of 2019 as the Year of Tolerance. Pleased with evangelical outreach to the region, he urges concerned Christians to understand that in an honor-shame culture, the worst sin is to publicly point out faults.

Does such a stance let Muslim leaders get away with persecution? Some evangelical leaders in the UAE suggest it does, noting that the country still bars everyone from “proselytizing” and Emiratis from converting.

The tension over praising limited gains is also a factor in Uzbekistan, a Muslim-majority secular nation whose citizens have the right to convert but which the United States has designated a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) since 2006 over religious freedom violations.

At the US State Department’s inaugural Ministerial for Advancing Religious Freedom in July 2018, Uzbek leaders outlined how they were streamlining registration for religious groups and reviewing a law that restricted religion. Last December, the Central Asian nation was removed from the CPC list—only the second nation to ever come off—and put on a watch list instead. But it ranks No. 17 on Open Doors’ list of countries where it’s hardest to be Christian.

Chris Seiple, president emeritus of the Institute for Global Engagement, has worked behind the scenes for 20 years to promote religious freedom in the nation he did his dissertation on. He says activists should publish a list of nations showing the most progress, not just the greatest offenders.

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Relational diplomacy involves public praise for small, tangible steps to build trust while communicating practical ways to improve in private, he said. There is a secret to engaging authoritarian contexts: create a rumor so that reality follows.

When Uzbek president Shavkat Mirziyoyev took office in 2016 following the 25-year dictatorship of Islam Karimov, Seiple reached out to his network of Uzbek and American friends suggesting that there was an opportunity to move Uzbekistan off the list.

With no power but that of suggestion, he helped to connect dots and to steward a common vision that culminated in the Uzbeks being the only delegation from a CPC country invited to the DC ministerial. As each side encouraged the other, reforms were put in motion.

How did Seiple know Uzbekistan would follow through?

“In discerning deeper dynamics, you can never know—especially in the early stages of engagement,” he said. “But in contexts where everyone is lying, if you keep your word it makes a huge difference. And then they will trust you when putting forward your concerns and your win-win plan for all parties.”

But sometimes public shame achieves results, too. A decade earlier in Jordan, a similar article to Evans’s reversed several visa denials to Christian workers. Gulf policies on migrant workers have improved after years of being hammered by human rights complaints. And in Uzbekistan, officials apologized for a raid on a Baptist church as they asked how they could get off the CPC list, and they admitted to overly restricting religion in a Diplomat op-ed.

“Activism plays an important role, but we need relationship building behind the scenes,” Moore said. “I want the region to reform—but from within, in collaboration with local Christians.”

Jayson Casper is Middle East correspondent for Christianity Today.

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