Saudi reforms detour through Vienna faith centre

Tom Heneghan, Religion Editor
Reuters Middle East

VIENNA, Nov 21 (Reuters) - The road to reform in Saudi

Arabia is long and winding. In the rigidly restricted field of

religion, the path is so circuitous that part of it even runs

through traditionally Catholic countries like Austria and Spain.

Next Monday, a pioneering Saudi-backed centre for worldwide

interfaith dialogue will open in a baroque palace on Vienna's

elegant Ringstrasse boulevard. Riyadh paid for the building and

will foot the centre's budget for the first three years.

Such largesse from a country often ranked as one of the most

religiously repressive has stirred suspicion and protest in

Vienna, where critics accuse the Saudis of everything from

hypocrisy to plotting to spread radical Islam in the Alps.

But the centre has supporters in unexpected places, most

notably in Israel. Rabbi David Rosen, the Jewish member of the

centre's multifaith board of directors, says it presents an

opportunity the world's religions cannot let pass.

"This is the first multifaith initiative from a Muslim

source, and not just any source, but from the very hardcore

heartland of Islam," said Rosen, International Director of

Interreligious Affairs of the American Jewish Committee (AJC).

"It is an essential stage in King Abdullah's efforts to

change Saudi Arabia itself," the Jerusalem-based rabbi said.

"If there are possibilities of good things coming from this, we

have to give it a try,"

The new head of the centre said other faiths would play into

the hands of Saudi hardliners if they refused to join before

Riyadh made changes like letting Christian churches open there.

"There are 1,000 extremists just waiting to hear that," said

Faisal bin Abdulrahman bin Muaammar, a former Saudi

vice-minister of education. He has led the National Dialogue

Centre set up in 2003 after a series of bombings convinced

Riyadh it had a problem with domestic Islamist militants.

"The only way to deal with this is dialogue," he said,

stressing the centre will be an international organisation.


Considered a reformer in the arch-conservative Saudi power

structure, King Abdullah, believed to be about 89, has been

slowly trying to get his kingdom used to the idea - foreign to

many in the powerful religious establishment - of cooperating

with other faiths.

The idea is daring in a country where many clerics have no

experience of other faiths and preachers and teachers have

traditionally denounced non-Muslims as infidels.

But the radicalisation of young Saudis raised in this

blinkered atmosphere rang alarm bells in Riyadh, where the king

and his aides decided a cautious opening on the religious front

was needed as an antidote to intolerance.

Abdullah started by hosting a meeting of the Organisation of

Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in Mecca in 2005 that endorsed

interfaith dialogue to redress "the existing lack of mutual

understanding among cultures and civilisations".

He visited Pope Benedict at the Vatican in 2007, a first for

a Saudi king. The following year, he convened 500 Muslim

religious leaders in Mecca - including former President Akbar

Hashemi Rafsanjani of rival Shi'ite Iran - to give their

blessing to large-scale talks with leaders of other faiths.

Saudi Arabia then hastily arranged a major multireligious

conference in Madrid in July 2008, where the king openly met

Christian, Jewish, Hindu and Buddhist leaders.

This meeting was not only impossible to stage in Saudi

Arabia; so strong was their rejection of the conference idea

that neither the country's grand mufti nor any of its leading

clerics would agree to attend it.

The king plowed on, sponsoring a discussion on religious

tolerance at the United Nations four months later that was

attended by then U.S. President George W.Bush, British Prime

Minister Gordon Brown and Israeli President Shimon Peres.

This year, Abdullah took a further step by proposing a

dialogue centre in Riyadh to promote harmony among Islam's

various sects, a signal he wanted to foster greater tolerance

among Saudi Sunnis towards the Shi'ite minority.


Although launched by Riyadh and named the King Abdullah

International Centre for Interfaith and Intercultural Dialogue

(KAICIID), bin Muaammar stressed it is not a Saudi entity.

"This is an international institution," he said. "About 70

percent of the world's religions are on its board. The centre

will be a neutral place to exchange ideas."

In fact, the centre is the first global organisation focused

on religion and is backed by an international treaty signed by

Austria, Spain and Saudi Arabia. Most other dialogue efforts are

linked to churches or non-governmental organisations.

The Vatican, a strong supporter of the project, has joined

as a founding observer and will be represented on the board,

which according to the treaty must have three Christians, three

Muslims, a Jew, a Hindu and a Buddhist.

Both the three sponsoring states, which appoint the board

and approve its budget and projects, and the board of directors

will take their decisions by majority vote, a provision that

ensures Riyadh cannot control the centre unilaterally.

Saudi Arabia has footed the start-up bills - about 15

million euros for the Sturany Palace building, the former

library for Vienna University's theology faculty, and 10-15

million euros annually for the first three years.

But the centre will have to finance itself after that.

Although bin Muaammar is a Saudi, there is no statute saying the

secretary general must be from the kingdom.


The centre plans initial work in three fields. Its "Image of

the Other" programme will have experts study how other faiths

are portrayed in their media and education, with an eye to

improving schoolbooks and public perceptions of religions.

A fellowship programme will bring young leaders from all

religions together for three to four months in Vienna to study

selected issues and learn how each faith deals with them.

A programme with the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF)

will involve religious leaders in Africa in efforts to support

health projects for children, which militants sometimes sabotage

by telling people their religion forbids them.

Given its multifaith approach, Rosen said the centre had the

potential to address not only global issues such as education

and health but also bring religious authority, especially from

the Muslim world, to bear on social and political issues.

"It hopes to contribute to make religion part of the

solution where very often it is part of the problem," he said.

"I'm referring specifically to places of conflict ... and that

includes in particular the Holy Land."

Another board member, Metropolitan Emmanuel of the Greek

Orthodox Church, said the centre could be "an opportunity for

Muslim communities around the world to get better acquainted

with other religions".


Austrian media have given the centre a frosty welcome, some

going so far as to portray it as a front to spread radical Islam

in the Alpine republic, and several opposition politicians have

repeatedly criticised the government for supporting it.

Alev Korun, a Green Party deputy in the Austrian parliament,

said Riyadh's ban on practising other religions beside Islam in

Saudi Arabia "stands in amazingly crass contradiction to the

dialogue the king wants to have here".

She said the centre would give undue prominence to Saudi

Arabia's strict Wahhabi tradition, a minority sect that had

already undermined a more moderate interpretation of Islam in

Bosnia, which was once part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

"Sarajevo is not far from Vienna," she said, adding that

Saudi Arabia had financed the building of Wahhabi mosques there

during and after the Yugoslav wars in the 1990s.

Saudi human rights activists also ask why Riyadh should

promote interreligious dialogue in Vienna while relations even

with its Shi'ite and Ismaili Muslim minorities were strained.

"They should have established the centre in Saudi Arabia,"

said Saudi dissident Mohammad al-Qahtani, now on trial for his

human rights activities. "Before you educate your neighbour, you

should educate your own people first."

For Bin Muaammar, criticism of the centre confirms the need

for it. "As we are facing some critism here, we are facing some

criticism in Saudi Arabia and everywhere in the world, but

dialogue is the answer for this," he said.


Rosen said the fact Saudi Arabia had launched the centre

with royal approval meant some changes could be expected there.

One would be holding a meeting of the board in Saudi Arabia,

which now is not possible because he is an Israeli citizen and

none are allowed in the kingdom.

"I would expect at some stage the whole board would be

invited to Saudi Arabia," he said.

If he were not allowed to enter, that would be a reason to

quit the board, Rosen said. Other possible adverse developments,

such as a worsening of conditions for religious minorities or

women in Saudi Arabia, could also trigger a departure.

"We are not going in there in any way in which we can't get

out of it," he said. "If we feel that we - God forbid - are

being exploited in any way, it is possible for us to exit."

Bin Muaammar said he had met visiting Jews in Saudi Arabia

only a week or so ago and hinted some arrangement could be found

to allow Rosen to attend a board session in the kingdom.

"I'm sure there will be a meeting," he said.

Among its directors are leading figures in interfaith

dialogue such as Rabbi Rosen, Metropolitan Emmanuel of the Greek

Orthodox Church, Rev Miguel Ayuso of the Vatican interreligious

department and Rev Toby Howarth of the Church of England.

The Muslims are two Sunnis - Saudi education professor Hamad

al-Majed, Mohammad Sammak of Lebanon's National Committee for

Christian-Muslim Dialogue - and the Shi'ite historian Seyyed

Mohajerani from Iran.

Swami Agnivesh, Indian head of the Hindu reform movement

Arya Samaj, and Rev Kosho Niwano of the Japanese Buddhist lay

movement Rissho Kosei-kai are the other two directors.

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