Saudi Arabia has defended its plan to fund a religious dialogue centre in Vienna saying Judaism and other faiths would be represented and that it would be free from political interference. Critics of the centre say Saudi Arabia’s austere version of Sunni Islam means it is an unsuitable country to promote religious debate. Saudi Arabia does not allow other faiths to have places of worship in the kingdom and its Muslims are forbidden from converting to other religions on pain of death.
Austria and Spain will also fund the Vienna-based “King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue”, but Saudi Arabia said it was willing to stump up the lion’s share of cash if needed. “(Our) paying for the operation is to create a fund that makes the centre independent from any sort of political interference,” Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal told a news conference in the Austrian capital on Thursday.
Asked whether the forum may help promote more religious freedom in Saudi Arabia, he said: “The centre is established exactly for the purposes of these questions that have been at the centre of differences between us. We are hoping that the centre will take the lead in (that) direction.”
Responding to criticism from a reporter from a Jewish newspaper about a lack of synagogues in the Arab kingdom, Prince Saud said there was no need for them because “there are no Jewish people in Saudi Arabia”. But he later said that the Jewish faith would be represented fairly at the Vienna project. The centre has no fixed opening date.
Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, head of the Vatican’s department for interfaith dialogue, welcomed the plan but said Saudi Arabia must tackle its own curbs on religious freedom. “These problems exist and they must be resolved. We are not naive,” he told official Austrian Catholic agency Kathpress in an interview, adding that faith and politics must not mix at the Vienna centre. The Holy See may seek observer status.