The U.N.-backed, Vienna-based King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz International Center for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue (KAICIID) held the two-day event, it said in a statement, “to discuss means to strengthen social cohesion and the common understanding of citizenship among Muslim and Christians in Arab societies.”
“Some Arab societies are witnessing violence and political conflicts, which gravely threatens to weaken the region’s social and cultural fabric,” it said. The meeting, which included religious, academic and civil society participants from several Arab countries, was organized due to the “urgency of the situation.”
KAICIID’s secretary-general, Faisal Bin Muaammar – a Saudi whose other roles include that of adviser to King Abdullah – said in closing remarks that relationships between people, groups and countries all depend on trust.
“Trust results from dialogue that is inclusive, especially dialogue that brings together religious leaders, governments, teachers, and civil society towards strengthening the common citizenship for Muslims and Christians in the Arab world based on equality and respect for human rights,” he said.
KAICIID describes itself as independent and free of political interference. Established in 2012 with a council comprising Saudi Arabia, Spain and Austria, its structure includes a board comprising representatives of Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhism.
Nonetheless it was set up by, is funded by, and is named for the ruler of a regime with one of the worst religious freedom records in the world.
Saudi Arabia is one of just eight countries blacklisted by the State Department for egregious religious freedom violations. It permits no churches.
“Freedom of religion is neither recognized nor protected under the law and the government severely restricted it in practice,” the State Department said in its most recent international religious freedom report. “The public practice of any religion other than Islam is prohibited, and there is no separation between state and religion.”
Ali Alyami, director of the Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia, on Thursday called the latest KAICIID event “deceptive, to say the least.”
He said the center in Vienna “is built and paid for by Saudi money exclusively.”
“The Saudi mufti, Abdul Aziz Al-Alshaikh, the Saudi highest religious authority and confidant of King Abdullah, advocated the destruction of Christian churches in the Arabia peninsula,” Alyami recalled.
“Christian, Jews and Hindus cannot even wear their religious symbols, let alone conduct their religious rituals, prayers, publicly in Saudi Arabia and if caught doing so privately they can be punished and deported,” he said. “Even Muslim minorities cannot practice their prayers publicly.”
Saudi Arabia’s role in stoking sectarianism between Muslim sects also calls into question its commitment to religious tolerance, Alyami added.
“All a person has to do is look at the carnage in Iraq and Syria between followers of the two branches of Islam, Shi’a and Sunni Muslims, in which the Saudi government plays a major role.”
‘To avoid hurting the feelings of Muslims’
Christopher Denbow, policy analyst at the Washington-based Institute for Gulf Affairs, also pointed to the kingdom’s anti-Shi’ite stance.
“This is yet another example of the kingdom’s hypocrisy,” he said of the KINCAIID event. “The fact that this monarchy will not even allow a sizeable portion of its Muslim [Shi’a] community to worship properly shows you how serious Secretary-General Faisal Bin Muammar is about strengthening the Muslim-Christian partnership in the Arab world.”
Denbow also recalled that the Saudi Minister of Islamic Affairs, Sheikh Saleh bin Abdul Aziz Al Sheikh, warned last April the kingdom faced an existential threat from a “dangerous trinity of Jews, Christians, and infidels.”
“[KAICIID] Director Faisal’s words will remain empty so long as the monarchy continues to endorse religious intolerance,” he said.
In April the head of the Saudi government-funded National Society for Human Rights, Mufleh al-Qahtani, disputed reports about mistreatment of Christians – even as he confirmed that they cannot be allowed to worship openly and asserted that as the site of Islam’s most revered shrines the kingdom cannot allow churches.
“The rights of Christians are preserved and guaranteed,” al-Qahtani was quoted as telling the kingdom’s Makkah daily. “They can perform their religious rituals at their homes or in private places to avoid hurting the feelings of Muslims.”
He compared the ban on churches to the stance a Western government may take towards polygamy which, while permitted in Islam, would go against Western laws.
“The general system of any country should be respected and upheld,” he said.
“The fact that the building of churches is not allowed in the kingdom stems from this country’s responsibility as a host of the two holy mosques, Islam’s most sacred shrines, because they are part of the land of revelation and the cradle of prophethood,” al-Qahtani said.
Secretary of State John Kerry is due to visit Saudi Arabia on Friday, “to brief King Abdullah on his discussions in Iraq,” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said Wednesday.
“Obviously, King Abdullah is a leader of incredible importance when it comes to regional issues and cares very deeply about the situation in Iraq,” she said.