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Test of faith for Saudi-funded secular forum

Critics say centre could be used to promote Wahhabism and avoid human rights focus

Gulf News

Vienna: A new interreligious dialogue centre backed by Saudi Arabia is stirring up controversy in Vienna and abroad even before its official inauguration.

The King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue — in short KAICIID — will officially open its doors on Monday.

But critics say that the centre — entirely financed by Saudi Arabia and named after its king, who initiated the idea — could be used by Riyadh to spread the brand of Islam known as Wahhabism, and divert attention from human rights violations and lack of religious freedom at home.

Monday’s glitzy inauguration at Vienna’s Hofburg Palace will be attended by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon and top representatives of the world’s leading religions.

Ahead of the event, the centre has gone on a media offensive to convince observers of its impartiality.

Set up jointly by Saudia Arabia, Spain and Austria, the KAICIID will have the status of an international organisation. That will bring it the privileges and tax breaks afforded to the likes of the United Nations, Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (Opec) and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

“One of the main reasons why it was thought of as an international organisation is that through a founding document, we can rule out that one member state or one religious community dominates the centre,” Austria’s Foreign Ministry said.

Despite Riyadh stepping in to finance the centre for the first three years, there will be “zero politics, zero influence in the centre”, KAICIID secretary-general Faisal Bin Abdul Rahman Bin Muammar, a former Saudi deputy education minister, told journalists.

The centre’s decision-making body, a nine-member board of directors including leading representatives of Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism, will make sure of that, he said.

The KAICIID’s stated mission is to act “as a hub, facilitating interreligious and intercultural dialogue and understanding, to enhance cooperation, respect for diversity, justice and peace”.

Asked if the centre would comment on current issues such as the recent anti-Islam video that sparked angry protests across the Muslim world, Muammar said the organisation would remain apolitical. “We are not going to follow every incident... we don’t want to just react like a political body. The problems in the last few years have been handled by politicians. Now let us use the wisdom of religious people.”

A statement from the Vatican on Friday said it had accepted an invitation to participate as a “founding observer” and a high-level delegation will attend the centre’s inauguration.

Annual conferences entitled ‘The Image of The Other’ will look at stereotypes and misconceptions in education, the media and the Internet. A fellowship programme will bring together applicants from different religions to work and learn from each other.

A yearly budget of €10-15 million (Dh47-71 million) will cover these programmes as well as a staff of 25 at the Vienna centre.

Critics remain unconvinced however. Liberal Muslim Initiative in Austria said it believed that “this dubious Wahhabist centre in Vienna” will “only serve Saudi Arabia’s political and religious interests abroad, under the guise of dialogue” and that its sole aim was to make Riyadh “respectable.”

Metropolitan Emmanuel of France, the Orthodox Church’s representative on the KAICIID board, also highlighted Riyadh’s poor human rights record in an interview with Austria’s Catholic news agency Kathpress. The next three years will be “a trial period” for the centre, he said.

Some observers hope the centre might eventually help Saudi Arabia implement reforms at home. “We are facing some criticism here, we are facing some criticism in Saudi Arabia... but dialogue is the answer for this,” said Muaammar. “The centre is open for all the critics. I invite them to come and see how the centre runs.”