Saudi Arabia has officially opened the doors of a controversial new "interreligious and intercultural dialogue center" in the Austrian capital, Vienna.
The King Abdullah International Center for Inter-Religious and Inter-Cultural Dialogue was inaugurated during an elaborate ceremony at the Hofburg Palace in downtown Vienna on November 26. More than 650 high-profile guests from around the world attended the event, including UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon and the foreign ministers of the center's three founding states, Austria, Spain and Saudi Arabia.
The Saudis say the purpose of the multi-million-dollar institution -- which will be headquartered at the Palais Sturany in the heart of Vienna and will have the status of an international organization -- is to "foster dialogue" between the world's major religions in order to "prevent conflict."
Critics, however, 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.
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.
Austrian politicians on all sides of the political aisle have criticized the initiative, and the opening ceremony was accompanied by angry protesters who said that the Austrian government had "bowed the knee" to Saudi Arabia, and that the center was a "shame for Austria."
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 first Muslim member of the Austrian Parliament, the Turkish-born Alev Korun, branded the project as "highly absurd." She said Austrian Foreign Minister Michael 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 newspaper Die Presse, in an editorial entitled, "Islamic Center in Vienna: Austria-Aid for Propagandists of Intolerance?," wrote: "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?"
Foreign Minister Spindelegger responded to the criticism by saying that he was "proud" of the initiative which "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."
The King Abdullah Center -- which will host seminars, conferences, dialogues and other events bringing together people of different backgrounds and faiths -- will have a governing body composed of 12 representatives from the world's five largest religions.
The governing board of directors 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.
The Vatican said in a statement that it had accepted an invitation to participate in the center as a "founding observer" and it sent a high-level delegation to attend the inauguration ceremony.
Rabbi David Rosen, the Jewish member of the King Abdullah Center's board of directors, said in an interview that the project presents a unique opportunity. "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."
Rosen was referring to the Saudi claim that interfaith dialogue in Vienna was aimed at bringing about religious reform in Saudi Arabia itself. Never mind that the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, the leading religious authority in the country, recently declared that all churches in the Arabian Peninsula must be destroyed. And that less than one week before the center in Vienna was inaugurated, the Saudi government introduced a new electronic system that tracks all cross-border movements of women, alerting their male guardians when they leave the country.
The Secretary General of the King Abdullah Center, Faisal bin Abdulrahman bin Muaammar, a former Saudi education minister, said the project was about dialogue, not politics. "We are facing some criticism here, we are facing some criticism in Saudi Arabia, but dialogue is the answer for this" Muaammar said.
Although Riyadh will finance the center for the first three years at an annual budget of 10-15 million euros ($13-20 million), there will be "zero politics, zero influence in the center," Muaammar said.
The primary focus of the King Abdullah Center will be to promote a work program called "The Image of the Other," which will examine stereotypes and misconceptions about Islam in education, the media and the Internet.
Critics say this work will parallel long-standing efforts by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), a bloc of 57 Muslim countries, to pressure Western countries into making it an international crime to criticize Islam or Mohammed, all in the name of "religious tolerance."
The Austrian Initiative of Liberal Muslims (ILMÖ) said "this dubious Wahhabist center in Vienna" will "only serve Saudi Arabia's political and religious interests abroad, under the guise of dialogue" and that its sole aim was to make Riyadh "respectable."
In case there was any doubt, the official Saudi Press Agency confirmed 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 a Senior Fellow at the New York-based Gatestone Institute. He is also Senior Fellow for European Politics at the Madrid-based Grupo de Estudios Estratégicos / Strategic Studies Group. Follow him on Facebook.