Have you ever wondered what the leaders of the world’s major religions talk about when they meet for so-called “interfaith dialogue?” I have. Do they ask each other tough, even uncomfortable, questions about beliefs and practices, or do they avoid giving offense at any cost? And if they don’t ask the tough questions, what then is the value of such meetings? I confess that when it comes to interreligious dialogue, I am a skeptic. I have serious doubts about the credibility of the participants, their motives, and their expectations. And that skepticism only continues to grow.
Six months ago, the King of Saudi Arabia officially opened the King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz International Center for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue (KAICIID) in the Hofburg, the ImperialPalace, in Vienna.
King Abdullah conceived the idea for such an international center after meeting with Pope Benedict XVI in 2007. Four years after that encounter between the Pope and the Saudi King, the governments of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the Republic of Austria, and the Kingdom of Spain signed an agreement to establish the center envisioned by King Abdullah. The Holy See participated as a Founding Observer. On 26 November 2012, KAICCID became a reality. Located in the Hofburg complex in Vienna, the center is to be funded by the King of Saudi Arabia for the first three years. The work of the center is to be administered by a ‘Council of Parties’ made up of Saudi Arabia, Austria, and Spain. Other functionaries of the center are a secretary-general, a 12-member board, plus an advisory forum of up to 100 members drawn from all the major world religions: Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. The goal of KAICIID as stated on its web site is “to enable, empower, and encourage dialogue among followers of different religions and cultures around the world.”
The Hofburg Imperial Complex in Vienna
The UN has recognized and given its full backing to the center. Indeed, Ban Ki-Moon was present at the official opening in the Hofburg. In February, the director-general of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, met with the secretary-general of KAICIID, Faisal Bin Abdulrahman Bin Muaamar, to discuss cooperation between the two organizations in areas of common interest, namely, respect for cultural and religious diversity and human rights, and the promotion of mutual understanding.
The King of Saudi Arabia: champion of religious diversity, human rights, and mutual understanding between religions–who would have thought it, given things “back home?” In the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, there are no Christian churches of any denomination to be found, no synagogues, no temples. The only state-recognized religion is Islam, and not just any variety of Islam, but the strict version of Islam as taught by the Wahhabi School. No public worship by adherents of any religion other than Islam is tolerated in the Kingdom, although private worship in homes is allowed. But that right is not defined in law nor is it always respected, so adherents of non-Islamic religion often meet in a clandestine fashion. The Mutawwa’in or ‘Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice’, a.k.a. the religious police, strictly enforce the prohibition on public practice of non-Islamic religion. Non-Muslim public worship can result in arrest, imprisonment, even flogging, followed by deportation. Back in December, a group of Christians from Ethiopia–in violation of their right to hold private worship services–was imprisoned for holding a prayer meeting in a private apartment in Jeddah. The 29 women at the prayer meeting were strip-searched, and the 6 men were assaulted. Imprisoned for months afterwards, the group was eventually deported.
The Mutawwa’in are ever on the lookout for other infractions as well. The wearing of religious symbols of any kind, like chains with crosses, is forbidden. Since proselytizing by non-Muslims is also illegal, customs officials regularly open packages and cargo to look for Bibles and religious tapes. Non-Muslim clergy are not allowed to enter the country to conduct religious services. No Jews are allowed to enter the country, even in transit. Shari’a law is applied to Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Blasphemy, or what is perceived as blasphemy, can bring a long prison sentence. Non-citizen residents must carry a Saudi residence permit that has a religious designation for “Muslim” or “non-Muslim”on it. Even being Muslim does not guarantee acceptance: Just ask the Shias, the Ismailis, and Sufis, viewed with suspicion by the dominant Wahhabis.
Given the situation of religious minorities and the ‘wrong kind’ of Muslims in his own country, how can the Saudi king be a credible voice for religious diversity, human rights, and mutual understanding? Maybe when it comes to interreligious dialogue, as is the case in other areas of life, “money talks.” I find it highly ironic that KAICIID was officially launched in the Imperial Palace of the Habsburg monarchs. I was in Vienna four years ago and visited the Hofburg. While in Vienna I also had dinner one night down in the wine cellar of the old Melk Abbey known as the Melkhof, surrounded by wine kegs and a whole lot of history. (The crispy fried pig knuckle was delectable, by the way.) Home of the wine-making Melk monks, the Melkhof was damaged during the first Turkish siege of Vienna in 1529. So the next year, the monastery complex was enlarged and a tower constructed. When the Turks returned in 1683 in a second attempt to take Vienna, the city’s defenders were able to watch the movements of the Turkish enemy from the abbey’s tower. On the evening of 11 September 1683, an alliance of Christian armies led by the Polish king Jan Sobieski arrived outside at the gates of Vienna, putting an end to a siege which had begun on July 16. Who alive at that time could have ever imagined that one day a Muslim monarch would be fêted in Vienna’s ImperialPalace?
Oil money has brought Saudi Arabia once-unimaginable influence worldwide. It has been reported that in the last 20 years, Saudi Arabia has spent $87 billion on promoting Wahhabi Islam around the world, money that has been used to build Islamic centers, mosques, colleges and madrassas. Is the Saudi King’s international center simply another means to the same end: propagation of the Muslim faith? Significantly, the king-appointed Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, Abdul Aziz Al al-Sheikh, once spoke of interreligious dialogue as a way to do da’wah, that is, a way for Muslims to invite non-Muslims towards a better understanding of Islam, or, in other words, a proselytizing tool. And so, when it comes to interfaith dialogue, I remain a skeptic. When I see significant change in Saudi Arabia, perhaps I’ll change my mind.