Saudi reforms detour through Vienna faith center

Fri Nov 23, 2012 5:23pm EST
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By Tom Heneghan, Religion Editor

VIENNA (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 center 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 center 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 center 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.   Continued...

Pope Benedict XVI shakes hands with Rabbi David Rosen, International Director of Interreligious Affairs of the American Jewish Committee and the Heilbrunn Institute for International Interreligious Understanding, during the synod for the Middle East bishops at the Paul VI Hall at the Vatican October 13, 2010. REUTERS/Osservatore Romano