Why we have to take the Saudis' interfaith offer seriously

Religion News Service

David Rosen

November 27, 2012

(RNS) Presidents, government ministers and religious leaders from around the world gathered in Vienna on Monday (Nov. 26) for the gala launch of the King Abdullah Center for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue.

While Austria and Spain joined Saudi Arabia in establishing the center, it originated in a bold initiative by Saudi King Abdullah. Some years ago, the king convened representatives from all segments of the Muslim world in Mecca to support his call for Islam to engage the other world religions in addressing the social, scientific and global challenges of our times.

He followed this up with an interfaith conference in Madrid co-hosted with King Juan Carlos of Spain, and subsequently brought his initiative to the United Nations in 2008, hosting a gathering of world political leaders that included Israeli President Shimon Peres.

It was naturally vital for Abdullah to enlist the leading institutions of the Christian world -- in particular the Vatican -- as partners in founding the interfaith center. But this raised skepticism about the project. It was surely incongruous, to say the least, for Christian leaders to cooperate with the Saudis in an interfaith center, when their communities are not allowed to openly worship, let alone build churches in Saudi Arabia.

However, Christian leaders decided that they needed to be involved in this project for that very reason. In addition to working to ensure that religion is a source of blessing and not abused for conflict and violence, the center also addresses the reality that societies have their various and differing internal educational challenges.

The Saudi monarch and his ministers have declared that change in their country will not come through confrontation. Rather, the more its leaders, scholars and representatives are seen to be engaged in respectful cooperation with other religions, the more open and understanding Saudi society will become in relation to those other religions.

In fact, the Saudi leadership pointed to changes that Abdullah had introduced since coming to the throne in education, the status of women and in the creation of a center to promote dialogue and respect for diversity inside Saudi Arabia.

Another major source of concern was how independent this center would be. That's why the center was established by the three equal national partners as an international organization under Austrian law. Its directorship is constitutionally managed by a nine-member board -- three Christians (representing the Vatican, the Ecumenical Orthodox Patriarchate, and the archbishop of Canterbury), three prominent Muslim scholars (two Sunni and one Shiite), one Jew, one Hindu and one Buddhist.

There will also be an international Advisory Forum that will provide voices for the faith communities and parts of the globe that are not represented on the board. The forum is also responsible for determining the projects and activities of the center. Together, the founding parties, the board and the forum guarantee the independence of the center. In fact, it was the multifaith board that determined that the center be named after King Abdullah.

What makes this interfaith initiative so special is not just that it has been established by three governments or that it has a multifaith board. Rather, it is the fact that this initiative has come from the very heart of the Muslim world -- from the custodian of the two holiest shrines of Islam. This gives it a unique standing and, hopefully, the potential to contribute globally.

While the center seeks to be a hub for interfaith work internationally and to provide state-of-the-art technology to help empower this work, it also explicitly seeks to address situations where religion is abused and exploited for violence and conflict, and to ensure that religion is part of the solution rather than part of the problem.

In the end, “the proof of the pudding is in the eating,” and time will tell whether this venture lives up to its expectations. Nonetheless, this initiative provides a remarkable opportunity. Skepticism here is not misplaced, but it must not lead us to spurn the outstretched hand. To do that would be to allow distrust to vanquish hope, good will, and the possibility of constructive change for the good of society as a whole.

(Rabbi David Rosen, the international director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee, is the Jewish member of the board of directors for the King Abdullah Center for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue.)