Vienna (AsiaNews) - "The eyes of the world" are on the centre. They expect to see a place of dialogue that promotes "religious freedom in all its aspects, for everybody, for every community, everywhere," said Card Jean-Louis Tauran after the opening ceremony of the King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue (KAICIID) in Vienna. Named after the Saudi king, the centre is also co-sponsored by Spain and Austria.
The KAICIID wants to be a place to build bridges between religions, and promote greater understand between faiths. It will be run by nine people, three Muslims, three Christians, a Jew, a Hindu and a Buddhist. Fr Miguel Ayuso Guixot, Secretary-General of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, is one of the three Christian members and will represent the Holy See.
Meetings and seminars were held yesterday with discussions focusing on certain points, such as revising textbooks with regards to the way they present religions; health campaigns in poor countries; and study programmes for religious leaders in Vienna.
"The aim is to promote acceptance of other cultures, moderation and tolerance," said Fahad Sultan Al-Sultan, representative of the Saudi king.
Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal explained that the centre wants to promote peace in the world and serve humanity by bringing "peace and understanding to religions." Too often, "Religion has been the basis for many conflicts," he said.
Saudi involvement in interfaith dialogue is recent, following the attack against the Twin Towers on 9 September 2001 by mostly Saudi terrorists.
Since then, King Abdullah has taken measures against the clash of civilisations and sponsored a number of interfaith meetings. In 2008, he was behind one such meeting in Madrid. After that, he visited Benedict XVI in Vatican.
At home, he has also pursued some tentative reforms, but they are slow. In fact, Al-Faisal Minister described his country's actions as a "long march" towards cautious reform.
There is however a major stumbling block in Saudi Arabia, namely that no religion other than Islam is allowed in the country. Any display in public or in private of non-Muslim religious symbols could lead to jail or expulsion.
The double standard-dialogue abroad and repression at home-did generate some criticism, first of all in Austria.
During the centre's inauguration, Muslim liberals met in front of the venue to criticise human rights violations in Saudi Arabia.
Austria's Green Party expressed doubts about the Saudi kingdom's intentions in promoting the centre, which it will finance for the first three years, whilst at the same time funding many mosques in Europe where Wahabism, radical and warlike Islam, is preached.
During their address, Saudi representatives yesterday said that the message of dialogue would also be promoted at home.
In his address, Cardinal Tauran noted that "This Centre presents another opportunity for open dialogue on many issues, including those related to fundamental human rights, in particular religious freedom in all its aspects, for everybody, for every community, everywhere."
"In this regard," he continued, "you will understand that the Holy See is particularly attentive to the fate of Christian communities in countries where such a freedom is not adequately guaranteed. Information, new initiatives, aspirations, and perhaps also failures will be brought to our attention.
Thus, it "will be the task of the Centre-and when possible with the cooperation of other organizations-to verify their authenticity and to act consequently, in order that our contemporaries not be deprived of the light and the resources that religion offers for the happiness of every human being."
For the prelate, "Believers have to work for and to support all that favours the human person in his material, moral and religious aspirations. So three attitudes are required: 1) respect of the other in his/her specificity; 2) mutual objective knowledge of the religious tradition of each other, particularly through education; and 3) collaboration in order that our pilgrimage towards the Truth be realized in freedom and serenity."
UN Secretary General Ban ki-Moon was in attendance Monday as one of the guests of honour, and spoke words of encouragement.
The Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I was present as well. In his address, he urged those present "to move from prejudice to good will; from good will to knowledge; from knowledge to understanding; from understanding to recognise the breath of God on each human rights, feeling love for each individual."
"Tonight," he added, "is a powerful statement to the world that harmony is better than conflict to solve problems."