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.
SLOW PROGRESS ON LONG PATH
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.
NOT A SAUDI CENTRE
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.
INITIAL PLANS, FURTHER POTENTIAL
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.
EXIT IF NEEDED
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.