(Reuters) – The road to reform in Saudi Arabia is long and winding. In the rigidly restricted field of religion, the path is so circuitous that part of it even runs through traditionally Catholic countries like Austria and Spain.
Next Monday, a pioneering Saudi-backed center for worldwide interfaith dialogue will open in a baroque palace on Vienna’s elegant Ringstrasse boulevard. Riyadh paid for the building and will foot the centre’s budget for the first three years.
Such largesse from a country often ranked as one of the most religiously repressive has stirred suspicion and protest in Vienna, where critics accuse the Saudis of everything from hypocrisy to plotting to spread radical Islam in the Alps.
But 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, says it presents an opportunity the world’s religions cannot let pass.
“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,” the Jerusalem-based rabbi said. “If there are possibilities of good things coming from this, we have to give it a try.”