VIENNA - A pioneering Saudi-backed center for worldwide interfaith dialogue is stirring controversy ahead of its inauguration planned next Monday in Vienna over accusations of fostering a conservative version of Islam in Europe.
"This is an international institution," Faisal bin Abdulrahman bin Muaammar, secretary-general of International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue (KAICIID), told journalists, Reuters reported on Friday, November 23.
"About 70 percent of the world's religions are on its board. The center will be a neutral place to exchange ideas," the former Saudi deputy education minister added.
The pioneering center will open in a baroque palace on Vienna's elegant Ringstrasse boulevard next Monday.
Monday's glitzy inauguration will be attended by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon and top representatives of the world's leading religions.
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 organisation is that through a founding document, we can rule out that one member state or one religious community dominates the centre," Austria's foreign ministry said.
Despite Riyadh stepping in to finance the centre for the first three years, there will be "zero politics, zero influence in the centre," bin Muaammar said.
He added that the centre'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.
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."
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 centre.
Ahead of its inauguration, the centre has gone on a media offensive to convince observers of its impartiality.
"This dubious Wahhabist centre in Vienna" will "only serve Saudi Arabia's political and religious interests abroad, under the guise of dialogue," Liberal Muslim Initiative in Austria (ILMOe) said, Agence France Presse (AFP) reported on Saturday.
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.
Despite opposition, the center has supporters in unexpected places, most notably in Israel. Rabbi David Rosen, the Jewish member of the centre's multifaith board of directors.
"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.
"If there are possibilities of good things coming from this, we have to give it a try," he added.
Facing criticism, the center's secretary-general said only dialogue would remove such suspicions.
"We are facing some criticism here, we are facing some criticism in Saudi Arabia... but dialogue is the answer for this," said Muaammar.
"The centre is open for all the critics. I invite them to come and see how the centre runs."