Saudi Arabia is spearheading the establishment of a controversial new "interreligious and intercultural dialogue center" in the Austrian capital Vienna.

The King Abdullah Center for Inter-Religious and Inter-Cultural Dialogue (here, here and here) was inaugurated at the Albertina Museum in downtown Vienna on October 13. The foreign ministers of the three founding states -- Austria, Spain and Saudi Arabia -- were in attendance. The institution will be located at the Palais Sturany on the Schottenring in the heart of Vienna.

The Saudis say the purpose of the multi-million-dollar initiative is to "foster dialogue" between the world's major religions in order to "prevent conflict."

But critics say the center is an attempt by Saudi Arabia to establish a permanent "propaganda center" in central Europe from which to spread the conservative Wahhabi sect of Islam.

Austrian politicians on all sides of the political aisle have criticized the initiative.

The Green Party, which governs Vienna in a coalition, said the center glorified a country "where freedom of religion and opinion are foreign words."

"Austria should not allow itself to be misused in this way, to allow itself to be involved in whitewash by a repressive Saudi regime which is using this center as a fig leaf for its dishonorable human rights situation," the party said in a statement.

The only Muslim member of the Austrian Parliament, the Turkish-born Alev Korun, branded the project as "highly absurd." She said Spindelegger "must be either incredibly naïve or only interested in business relations with Saudi Arabia." She also accused the foreign minister of "closing both eyes" to breaches of human rights in Saudi Arabia.

The center-right Die Presse newspaper said in an editorial titled "Islamic Center in Vienna: Austria-Aid for Propagandists of Intolerance?" that: "The Austrian government needs to ask itself whether it knows what it is doing: Is it not known that as the state religion of Saudi Arabia Wahhabism is fiercely opposed to other religions and uses 'intercultural dialogue' as a means for aggressive proselytizing?"

"To clarify: Wahhabism is the only officially recognized and allowed religion in Saudi Arabia. Other forms of Islam and other religions are banned and persecuted by the state. Saudi Arabia is the only Islamic state in which there is no church, no synagogue and no other place of worship of any other religion. Shiite Muslims have been systematically discriminated against for decades. Jews are even forbidden to enter the Kingdom. Saudi Arabia practices a form of Sharia law that is one of the most brutal systems in the world. Saudi Arabia has at all times rejected the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948. Women may not drive a car and can be punished by flogging. Corporal punishment, including amputations and executions, are part of everyday life in the country. Just two weeks ago a Sudanese immigrant in Saudi Arabia was publicly beheaded for 'sorcery.' Saudi Arabia is one of the few countries in the world in which the death penalty is enforced even on teenagers," the paper said.

The paper concludes: "Does the Austrian Foreign Ministry really want to give such a state the opportunity to build an international propaganda center in Austria?"

Critics also say the Saudis deliberately chose Vienna to serve as the headquarters for the new organization because of the city's historic role in preventing Islam from overrunning Christian Europe during the Siege of Vienna in 1529 and the Battle of Vienna in 1683. The Saudis, they say, are simply fighting a new phase of a very old conflict.

"The thesis is valid that world peace cannot exist without peace between the world's major religions," Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said during a news conference in Vienna. "Our paying for the operation is to create a fund that makes the center independent from any sort of political interference," he added.

The King Abdullah Center -- which will host seminars, conferences, dialogues and other events bringing together individuals of different backgrounds and faiths -- will have a governing body composed of 12 representatives from the world's five largest religions.

The governing body is to be staffed by two Muslims (Sunni and Shiite), three Christians (Catholic, Anglican and Orthodox), a Buddhist, a Hindu and a Jew. The organization will also have a consulting body with 100 representatives from the five world religions plus other faiths as well as academics and members of civil society.

Austrian Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger said the initiative "proved the readiness to start a real dialogue." He also said "all kinds of discrimination and stereotyping based on religion or belief must be tackled."

Spanish Foreign Minister Trinidad Jimenez said the organization's structures are designed to ensure that none of the represented religions dominates the organization. She also said the three founding states are open to the membership of other countries.

Saudi King Abdullah came up with the idea for the center after visiting Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican in 2007. Shortly thereafter, Abdullah stated that Christians and Muslims should offer a "common message of peace" to humanity.

Abdullah then initiated an interfaith dialogue in Mecca in 2008 followed by the "Interfaith Dialogue Conference" in Madrid. A third meeting took place in Vienna in 2009, where the concept of the organization was agreed upon.

In 2006, the kingdom attempted to cast itself as a vanguard for religious dialogue by awarding $20 million grants to Harvard and Georgetown Universities for similar initiatives.

The Austrian Initiative of Liberal Muslims (ILMÖ) said it feared integration would become more difficult for Muslims in Austria as the center would strengthen the role of "fundamentalist-conservative Islam" in the country.

In case there was any doubt, the official Saudi Press Agency confirms that dialogue is not a two-way street. The most important goal of dialogue, the agency says, is "to introduce Islam" and to "correct the erroneous slanders raised against Islam."

Soeren Kern is Senior Fellow for Transatlantic Relations at the Madrid-based Grupo de Estudios Estratégicos / Strategic Studies Group. Follow him on Facebook.

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