Saudi King’s Religious Tolerance Center Faces Fresh Scrutiny

By Patrick Goodenough | October 31, 2014 | 5:12 AM EDT

Abdullah al-Turki of the Muslim World League, a Mecca-based organization with close ties to the Saudi monarch, speaks at the opening of the King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue, in Vienna on November 26, 2012. (Photo: KAICIID)

(CNSNews.com) – Two years after a Saudi-funded, U.N.-backed center for interreligious dialogue opened in Vienna, its future in the Austrian capital may be at risk over comments by its deputy head viewed as downplaying concerns about human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia.

The Austrian government is now reviewing whether the King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue (KAICIID), which enjoys tax-exempt status, is actually fostering dialogue between faiths as it claims to do, Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann said this week.

The center’s three-year contract comes up for renewal next year, and Faymann said Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz closely monitor the situation over the intervening period.

KAICIID was controversial from the outset, and critics have questioned the appropriateness of such an initiative being funded – and named for – the head of a regime notorious for violating religious freedom and other human rights.

The latest row erupted after the emergence of a magazine interview in which the center’s Austrian deputy secretary-general, Claudia Bandion-Ortner – a judge and former Justice Minister – challenged or made light of issues in the kingdom that have provoked widespread concern.

Asked about the Saudi practice of publicly beheading or flogging criminals after Friday prayers, for instance, Bandion-Ortner replied that it was “nonsense” that that occurred every Friday, before adding, “Whatever, I’m against it anyway.”

She also said the abaya – the black cloak Saudi women must wear in public – was a practical and “pleasant piece of clothing,” saying it reminded her of her judge’s gown.

Bandion-Ortner told Profil magazine that the Saudi authorities never interfere in the work of KAICIID, and questioned the center’s right to meddle in the kingdom’s internal affairs.

“No international organization in the world is allowed to interfere in the domestic affairs of a country,” she said, before insisting that Saudi Arabia was changing, but transformation could not happen overnight.

Patron of dialogue

Abdullah presides over a regime based on the strict Wahhabi strain of Sunni Islam. Rights campaigners say religious freedom for others – including Christians, Shi’ites and Ismaili Muslims – is essentially non-existent.

For the past decade, Saudi Arabia has featured near the top of Open Doors USA’s annual list of the world’s worst persecutors of Christians, usually in the number two position. (It is in sixth place this year, behind North Korea, Somalia, Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.)

Two years ago, the kingdom’s senior religious leader called for the demolition of all churches in the Arabian peninsula.

Despite its poor record, Abdullah presents himself as a patron of interreligious dialogue. In 2008 he opened an interfaith conference in Madrid and hosted a “culture of peace” gathering at the U.N. in New York.

In 2010, Abdullah donated $5 million to the U.N. Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to implement a three-year international program aimed at building a “culture of peace and dialogue.”

Two years later UNESCO awarded the king a medal “in recognition of his efforts in enhancing the culture of dialogue and peace.”

At the center of his efforts is KAICIID, which received the U.N.’s blessing when secretary-general Ban Ki-moon attended the official opening in Nov. 2012.

Established with a council comprising Saudi Arabia, Spain and Austria, and the Vatican as an observer, its structure includes a board that must be made up of three Muslims, three Christians, one Jew, one Hindu and one Buddhist.

Its secretary-general is Faisal Bin Muaammar, a Saudi diplomat who also serves as an advisor to the king. The center hosts numerous events including dialogues and panel discussions. Last August it issued a declaration denouncing Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS/ISIL) violence against religious minorities in northern Iraq.

Western governments, including the Obama administration, have praised Abdullah for fostering harmony between religions.

“I was impressed when I first visited Saudi Arabia, and I met King Abdullah,” Secretary of State John Kerry told a Ramadan gathering at the State Department in mid-2013. “And I listened to him talk about his sense of urgency about bringing faiths together and his own initiative to try to reach out across the divide and bring Muslim and all other religions together.”

The latest controversy over KAICIID comes at a time when many Austrians are concerned about the spread of jihadist messaging and the radicalization of local Muslims, some 140 of whom are believed by the authorities to have traveled to fight in Syria or Iraq.

The government several weeks ago unveiled new legislation designed to end foreign influence on Austrian Muslims. It will prohibit foreign funding of operating costs for mosques, schools and other Islamic facilities.

Earlier it announced a ban on ISIS symbols, and said it planned to revoke the citizenship of any dual citizens who join the jihad.


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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow