The King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz International Center for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue – in short KAICIID – will officially open its doors on Monday.
But critics say that the center – entirely financed by Saudi Arabia and named after its king, who initiated the idea – could be used by Riyadh to spread the radical brand of Islam known as Wahhabism, and divert attention from human rights violations and lack of religious freedom at home.
Monday’s glitzy inauguration at Vienna’s Hofburg Palace will be attended by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon and top representatives of the world’s leading religions.
Ahead of the event, the center has gone on a media offensive to convince observers of its impartiality.
Set up jointly by Saudi Arabia, Spain and Austria, the KAICIID will have the status of an international organization. That will bring it the privileges and tax breaks afforded to the likes of the United Nations, OPEC and the Organization of Security of Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
“One of the main reasons why it was thought of as an international organization is that through a founding document, we can rule out that one member state or one religious community dominates the center,” Austria’s foreign ministry said.
Despite Riyadh stepping in to finance the center for the first three years, there will be “zero politics, zero influence in the center,” KAICIID secretary-general Faisal bin Abdulrahman bin Muaammar, a former Saudi deputy education minister, told journalists.
The center’s decision-making body, a nine-member board of directors including leading representatives of Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism, will make sure of that, he said.
The KAICIID’s stated mission is to act “as a hub, facilitating interreligious and intercultural dialogue and understanding, to enhance cooperation, respect for diversity, justice and peace.”
Asked if the center would comment on current issues such as the recent anti-Islam video that sparked deadly protests in the Muslim world or the earlier Mohammed caricatures, Muaammar told AFP it would not be political.
“We are not going to follow every incident… we don’t want to just react like a political body,” he said.
“The problems in the last few years have been handled by politicians. Now let us use the wisdom of religious people.”
A statement from the Vatican on Friday said it had accepted an invitation to participate as a “founding observer” and a high-level delegation will attend the center’s inauguration.
Annual conferences entitled “The Image of The Other” will look at stereotypes and misconceptions in education, the media and the Internet. A fellowship program will bring together applicants from different religions to work and learn from each other.
A yearly budget of 10-15 million euros ($12.9-19.3 million) will cover these programs as well as a staff of 25 at the Vienna center.
Critics remain unconvinced, however.
Liberal Muslim Initiative in Austria (ILMOe) said it believed that “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.”
Metropolitan Emmanuel of France, the Orthodox Church’s representative on the KAICIID board, also highlighted Riyadh’s poor human rights record in an interview with Austria’s Catholic news agency Kathpress.
The next three years will be “a trial period” for the center, he said.
After that, the KAICIID will look for other sources of funding and it could also diversify further by bringing in new member states on top of the founding three, officials insist.
Some observers hope the center might eventually help Saudi Arabia implement reforms at home.
The ultra-conservative kingdom currently bans any form of worship other than Islam. It has also come under fire for its application of Islamic sharia law, which includes executing by the sword people convicted of murder, apostasy or armed robbery.
“We are facing some criticism here, we are facing some criticism in Saudi Arabia… but dialogue is the answer for this,” said Muaammar.
“The center is open for all the critics. I invite them to come and see how the center runs.”