Is the Saudi-backed centre for interreligious dialogue a fig leaf for the west or a genuine step towards tolerance?

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon attended the launch of the centre (Photo courtesy of KAICIID)

One of the strangest things to happen just recently in Vienna is the inauguration of the King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue. The centre has a Wikipedia page here, which reads rather strangely, as this taster shows:

“This new international organization, KAICIID, is headquartered in Vienna, Austria; and has major objectives of facilitating intercultural and interreligious dialogue as a humanely strategic forum for cooperation, communication, partnership and information exchange – thereby building understanding and mutual benefit among peoples of the world.

“Crucially, KAICIID has further goals of promoting human rights, justice, peace and reconciliation plus acting against the abuse of religion as a means to justify oppression, violence and conflict; promoting abiding societal cherishment for the preservation and sacredness of holy sites, as well as respect for religious symbols; including focusing on compassionate issues pertaining to: the dignity of human life, preservation of the environment, ethical matters, poverty alleviation and religious education.”

The centre is financed by the Saudi Kingdom, along with the governments of Austria and Spain. Just why the latter are involved remains mysterious. And why is it located in Vienna, of all places? The best place for a Saudi-backed centre which promotes tolerance is clearly Saudi Arabia itself. The only problem with that is that Saudi Arabia is a country where religious intolerance is legally and constitutionally enshrined: so the centre’s objectives, which include promoting religious freedom – specifically “the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion” – might actually make its activities illegal back home.

The Huffington Post has the idea that the centre, though positioned abroad, is designed to win over the more intolerant sections of Saudi opinion. This may be true. Or is the centre a fig leaf designed to make us think the Saudis are inclined to tolerance, despite all evidence to the contrary?

The Vatican is supporting the initiative, though reading this report, from the Catholic News Service, one has the impression that the Holy See is being cautious. It must be remembered that the Holy See and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia have no diplomatic relations, as the Holy See does not have diplomatic relations with countries that do not practise religious toleration. Nevertheless, there are contacts, and the King of Saudi Arabia has visited the Vatican, and been received by the Holy Father, despite the fact that it is illegal to celebrate Mass in his Kingdom.

That Saudi Arabia should embrace religious toleration is something that we should all want, and if this centre is part of bringing that about, we should all welcome it. But it is a pretty strange way of going about it. One might say, of course, that the Saudi Kingdom is a country like no other, and that too would be correct.

As for the choice of Vienna, can that have anything to do with the famous repulse of the Turks before its walls in 1683?