The column appeared originally in Arab News dated 29/11/2012
Some critics have complained the King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz International Center for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue (KAICIID), which opened this week in Vienna, is led by a country that is 100 percent Muslim and has no places of public worship for non-Muslims.
However, those critics are perhaps unaware that non-Muslims are not prohibited from privately practicing their religion in Saudi Arabia and face no harassment from Saudi authorities.
I acknowledge the complaints up front because it’s not as if Saudis hadn’t thought about the implications of establishing an interreligious dialogue center, nor are we blind to our shortcomings. But the very nature of a country like Saudi Arabia developing a venue that brings all religions together under one roof to create a single voice of tolerance is a clear statement that our country is not the isolationist backwater nation many critics believe it to be.
Recent conflicts, 9/11, the growth of religious hate organizations and the freewheeling denigration of the Prophets (peace be upon them) have given urgency to the formation of an interfaith center. While there are a great many Christian, Muslim, Jewish and secular organizations doing fine work to promote tolerance, a well-funded facility brings international credibility to solving issues affecting all religions. And often those issues involve self-examination.
Some political leaders have complained that by leading the cause of interreligious tolerance, Saudi Arabia can deflect attention from its own policies regarding other faiths.
Yet Saudi Arabia is prepared because expectations are high.
Speaking at the center’s opening ceremonies, Jean-Louis Tauran, a French cardinal and president of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, acknowledged the challenges.
“This center presents another opportunity for open dialogue on many issues including those related to fundamental human rights, in particular religious freedom,” he said. “In all its aspects, for everybody, for every community, everywhere.”
Tauran cautioned that, “We are being watched. Everyone is expecting from the initiative ... honesty, vision and credibility.”
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said during the center’s opening that, “Too many religious leaders have stoked intolerance, supported extremism and propagated hate ... Yet we know that blaming ‘the other’ is not a political strategy for a healthy country, continent or world.”
He added that, “Religious leaders have immense influence. They can be powerful forces for cooperation and learning. They can set an example of interfaith dialogue.”
And although the doubters say that Saudi Arabia is in no position to lead the center’s goals of promoting interreligious dialogue, the Kingdom has the support of Spain and Austria as the center’s co-founders, and the Vatican serving as a “founding observer.”
In fact, it was King Abdullah’s 2007 meeting with Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican that helped shape the king’s desire for Christians and Muslims to reach common ground.
The credibility of the center is further strengthened by what I see as the who’s who of the international religious community present at the center’s opening. There is Chief Rabbi of Moscow Pinchas Goldschmidt, the head of the rabbinical court of the Commonwealth of Independent States and leader of the Moscow Choral Synagogue. There are also Patriarch Bartholomew of the Church of Constantinople, Eastern Orthodox Church, and Abdullah Al-Turki, president of the Muslim World League.
On the center’s board of directors is Israeli Orthodox Rabbi David Rosen, who also serves as international director of interreligious affairs of the American Jewish Committee (AJC) and an adviser on interreligious affairs to Israel’s Chief Rabbinate.
The Church of England, Sunni and Shiite Islam, Buddhist, Hindu and Shinto are also represented.
At the end of the day, the skeptics’ position on KAICIID doesn’t hold water. There are enough checks and balances in the center’s operation to guarantee that all participants are held accountable for the promotion of tolerance across the board on all religious issues.
And no one can deny the center is the first of its kind developed during a most critical period when it's essential that religious extremism in the West and Middle East must be dealt with in a deliberate, unemotional manner. This is something that has so far eluded the international community.