WASHINGTON, Feb. 22 (UPI) -- The opening last November of a Saudi-backed interfaith center in Vienna, Austria, has created speculation and controversy in the religious and human rights worlds.
The center is the brainchild of Saudi King Abdullah, for whom it is named.
Recently, H.E. Faisal bin Muammar, secretary-general of the center, visited the United States to meet U.S. religious leaders. He spoke exclusively with United Press International.
Interest has been unavoidable since this is a major initiative in interfaith dialogue coming from the heart of the Muslim world. Abdullah stresses that he established the center, not as the Saudi monarch, but as the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, a religious figure.
Critics point to the contrast between the center's support for religious freedom and the lack of it in Saudi Arabia.
Muammar said that progress will only come by first breaking down psychological barriers and building trust through dialogue.
"We have to convert people to dialogue, not talk about beliefs," he said.
He said he doesn't want the center to become a bureaucratic organization but to nurture "respect and agreement through the wisdom of religious leaders."
"God owns us but sometimes we think we own God," Muammar said of the co-opting of faith to buttress tribal identities.
Greater understanding would help break down stereotypes -- of Islam in the West and of the West among Muslims. He said that many Muslims don't understand how much religious faith underpins the U.S. political system or that much of what they object to in Western popular culture is equally disturbing to Christians in the West.
In Islam, the views of jihadis are alien to most Muslims. Young men went off to fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan with broad popular support but returned with new and extreme ideas, bred through political crisis that alarmed other Saudis.
Abdullah took considerable pains to avoid the perception that the center was an exclusively Saudi, or Muslim operation, meeting with Pope Benedict XVI in 2007 to propose the idea. The Vatican became a founding observer for the center. Austria and Spain joined Saudi Arabia as founding states. The nine-person board of directors comprises representatives of different faiths: three Muslims, three Christians, a Buddhist, a Hindu and a Jew.
The center has three main projects. The "Image of the Other" conferences are intended to help religious leaders dispel false stereotypes through improved religious education and other means. One will be in the United States this year.
The fellows program will have up to 30 young religious leaders from different faiths and countries in Vienna for two months. They are to create and implement a project related to interfaith understanding.
In Uganda next month, a multi-faith collaboration project for children will be launched. The center will work with Religions for Peace, an international non-governmental organization, to mobilize faith communities from different traditions to work together to improve basic health practices for children in the areas where they live.
"We are looking not only for talk but a road map for implementation," Muammar said of the project.
Despite the critics, many religious leaders back the initiative. Rabbi David Rosen, international director of interreligious affairs at the American Jewish Committee, and a board member of the center, said that it was a key element of Abdullah's efforts to change his country.
"Saudi Arabia is the bedrock state of Islam, so to speak," Rosen told Der Standard, an Austrian newspaper. "So if that state shows commitment to the process of religious freedom, we would be stupid not to encourage that development."
Muammar sees it as a step that is long overdue, saying, "If we did this 20 or 25 years ago, this dialogue among religious leaders -- we would have saved a lot of lives and money."
(Michael Marshall is former editor in chief of United Press International.)
(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)