Rev. Donald Heckman

The Potential Impact of the New Saudi-Sponsored Interfaith Center in Vienna

The question is no longer, “Should governments foster interreligious action?” but instead, “How should they do it?” And  then, “What happens when they do?”

Governments have been helping to advance interreligious dialogue for many years, particularly since 9/11. They have an    increasing interest in the enterprise, especially given the way religions are manipulated in global conflicts. Qatar, Norway, Kazakhstan, Jordan, United States, Indonesia, Denmark are but a few of the countries with interreligious initiatives.

The interfaith field is fledgling. Though the modern interfaith movement had its harbinger in the 1893 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago, interfaith work and organizations only began to come to life in the 1960s with organizations like Religions for Peace. Despite some shining examples to the contrary, the field today is under-funded, ill-coordinated and un-strategic. In contrast, the movements for civil rights, human rights and environmental justice each emerged in roughly the same time frame and became widely publicly recognized and defined fields. Why? They came to be anchored by a plethora of well-developed non-profits, academic centers, donor bases and even, finally, enjoyed government support.

For interfaith work, government involvement has often began and ended with the hosting of conferences and exchange visits, halting at the level of restrained observation and conversation. That is a necessary early step and valuable for advancing understanding and education, but the real promise for the field to become a field is in bringing government-scale funding and gravitas to fostering interreligious action. The involvement of multiple governments — with resources, not just platitudes — will create a global political climate of expectation for religious tolerance.

The stakes just changed in that regard. The world’s newest and perhaps boldest center for interreligious engagement formally opened on Nov. 26 in Vienna, Austria in an elaborate inauguration ceremony featuring high-level religious and political leaders at the Hofburg Palace. Backed by Saudi Arabia with the support of Spain and Austria, the King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue fulfills a vision of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud, for fostering “religion as enabler of respect and reconciliation.”

KAICIID, as it is called, is not just another NGO in the emerging field of interfaith relations. First, it is the most well funded enterprise of its kind, with tens of millions of Euros in support from the Saudi government alone for first three years of outfitting.

Second, KAICIID (pronounced “ky-sid”) will be integrated with the United Nations in its activities and promises to move beyond just “head-talk” dialogues toward fostering action-oriented projects in education, health and other areas. It showcased many of the kinds of organizations that it might partner with in the future in best practices workshops on its inauguration day.

Just how its relationship with the U.N. Alliance of Civilizations — now interestingly with Abdulaziz Al-Nasser of neighboring Qatar at the helm as the High Representative — will play out will remain to be seen. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon was clear in his opening remarks at KAICIID’s opening that the two entities would have to work together. The UNAoC has leaned heavily toward the cultural pole on the continuum of religion and cultural, perhaps because it is more beholden to a wider array of member states’ interests, many of which find culture conceptually safer ground for engagement. KAICIID looks better equipped and ready to tackle the role of religion.

The Saudi generosity should not be looked at like a gift horse in the mouth, as it too often has been. The Saudis have a number of leading philanthropists like Mohamed Abdul Latif Jameel and Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal who have been exemplary in giving away millions in private support to interfaith initiatives without an inkling of promoting any brand of Islam or Saudi political view being advanced in the process.

Unfortunately, much of the initial reporting on KAICIID has fixated on the conditions for religious freedom and gender parity in the major sponsoring country. Such challenges give little or no appreciation for the complexity of political conditions in Saudi Arabia and what would be necessary to transform and mitigate those concerns, nor respect for the brave diplomacy of His Majesty King Abdullah’s reform efforts to date. With a small and religiously diverse board, there is enough DNA in the governance design of KAICIID that the good intentions of the Centre should be received for what it is that they are on their own terms. Besides, none of the countries fostering interreligious dialogue today has completely clean hands when you consider the interreligious tensions found on their own soil.

For example, even with the respected model of religious freedom in the U.S., the wheels of justice and fairness sometimes take time in helping people to live up to their highest ideals. The much challenged Islamic Center in central Tennessee — subject of a recent CNN special “Unwelcome: The Muslims Next Door” — just publicly opened last weekend after more than a few challenges over several years. And former periods of religious phobias and discrimination — against Jews, Catholics and Mormons — are not so far back in history. Religious tolerance and freedom is a struggle everywhere. It is a matter of degree, discovery and complexity. It takes time and effort to make changes.

For evidence of KAICIID’s sincerity in making space for difficult questions, one needs look no further than Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran’s inauguration ceremony remarks. He openly reminded his esteemed colleagues that the Holy See, a Founding Observer, is very “concerned about the fate of Christian communities where their freedom is restricted.” The Vatican is concerned about the welfare of Christians and reciprocity, and they did not feel inhibited from saying so, even with glasses still clinking in the opening festival.

The measure of success for KAICIID will be not only in creating a space where difficult concerns can be aired with integrity, but also in its programmatic outputs and outcomes. The first major project of KAICIID — a joint effort with UNICEF and Religions for Peace — to advance child survival rates through multi-religious efforts at nutrition delivery in Africa is a hopeful sign of its potential. What unfolds in the coming months and years will ultimately show the value of government involvement in the emerging field. Cardinal Tauran said it bluntly and with knowing humor at the beginning of his remarks, saying slowly and with emphasis “we are being watched!” Indeed, you are KAICIID.