Saudi foray into promoting open society abroad in tatters over continued restrictions at home

Austria was enthusiastic when Saudi Arabia said it was ready to bankroll a center for religious and cultural understanding in Vienna — but two years after its launch, the desert kingdom's foray into promoting a more open society abroad while continuing to repress rights at home is in tatters.

Its vice president, a former Austrian justice minister, has quit over comments interpreted as downplaying Saudi beheadings. And the center's silence over the flogging of a Saudi blogger for criticizing Islam has drawn weekly street protests and condemnation from Austria's chancellor — who said the nation "will not tolerate" the center's refusal to repudiate Saudi human rights violations.

"I believe that the center needs to done away with," said demonstrator Norbert Brandl outside the turn of the century downtown palace housing KAICIID — the King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz International Center for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue. "Either that or it has to speak up against these unbelievable incidents."

But the center also has backers. They include prominent Christian and Jewish figures who sit on its board with Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist representatives, and experts who view KAICIID as a cautious attempt at outreach by the late king who hoped that reforms — however modest — initiated by the center would trickle down into Saudi society.

Islam specialist Ruediger Lohlker says that the center hasn't existed nearly long enough for that goal to bear fruit, and suggests those criticizing it be patient. Opposition by the clergy and other powerful conservative Saudi factions means that domestically, "the process of reform tends to be plodding," he said.

In any case, supporters argue that KAICIID's mandate is not to speak out against individual human rights abuses but to facilitate dialogue between religions.

And they note that Austria — along with co-backer Spain and The Vatican as an observer — signed on fully aware of Saudi Arabia's record of flogging, beheading and mutilating those convicted of a range of crimes.

At best, they say, expectations that the center now will condemn Saudi blogger Raif Badawi's sentence of 50 lashes each over 20 weeks is naive — and at worst a stunt by Chancellor Werner Faymann's Socialist party to gain voter support by exploiting public outrage over the sentence.

At Faymann's urging, the foreign ministry commissioned a report that demands the center's "withdrawal from Vienna" unless it starts speaking out against "human rights violations with a religious component."

The chancellor says that if KAICIID stays quiet over Badawi, it "is not worthy of being called a dialogue center — it is a silence center."

The center's Jewish board member calls such comments perverse.

"In many respects, the government is now questioning its own decision," says Chief Rabbi David Rosen, noting that Austria agreed to host KAICIID "knowing that Saudi Arabia is not the embodiment of human rights."

The project was born of Abdullah's 2007 audience with Pope Benedict XVI to discuss interreligious and intercultural dialogue. U.N. Secretary General Ban-Ki-moon attended the center's splashy opening five years later, along with the Saudi, Austrian and Spanish foreign ministers and more than 650 other guests. The three spoke only vaguely about the need to overcome religious differences and expressed hope that KAICIID would achieve that goal.

But Roman Catholic Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran foreshadowed the present dispute, urging the center to work for religious freedom everywhere, including in countries "where such freedoms are not guaranteed." The opposition Greens, moderate Muslim organizations and human-rights groups were opposed from the outset, with some fearing that the center was a front for Saudi attempts to spread the conservative Wahhabi version of Islam in Europe.

Concerns morphed into outrage even before the Badawi case over comments by KAICIID deputy director Claudia Bandion-Ortner. The former Austrian justice minister stepped down late last year after dismissing as "nonsense" suggestions that beheadings were commonplace in Saudi Arabia, and describing as "comfortable" the black, all-encompassing abaya that women there are forced to wear.

Faymann has critics even within his ruling coalition. The centrist People's Party who govern with his Socialists says the chancellor is hurting Austria with his demands.

And the government report is in some ways a contradictory document. While issuing its ultimatum, the report — drawn up by the Foreign Ministry which is under People's Party control — also notes that the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia "was known at the time of KAICIID's opening and was no different than today."

It says the Saudis already have warned that further pressure might result in serious diplomatic and economic fallout, including OPEC pulling up stakes and ending its 50-year presence in Vienna.

Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi said he hoped the center "can continue to do its work promoting dialogue," and noted that the center and its international status was recognized by the U.N. — a hint that any Austrian move to force it out would call into question Vienna's commitment to hosting other U.N.-recognized organizations.

Spanish government officials had no comment while the Saudi Embassy in Vienna directed all queries to the center, also noting its international status.

Lohlker, the Islam specialist, said the Saudis cannot possibly meet the terms of Faymann's ultimatum. For Rosen, the dispute is actually hurting chances of domestic Saudi reform.

The chief rabbi said a cardinal at the audience between the late Saudi king and the pope told him that Abdullah specifically expressed hope that KAICIIDs work in Vienna would help his agenda of cautious domestic transformation.

The ruling family "saw this as a remarkable opportunity, saying 'change will come to Saudi Arabia if we are seen to engage other religious groups with mutual respect,'" he said.

Austria, Rosen suggested, would be better off encouraging such efforts than issuing condemnations.

"You can either curse the darkness," he said, "or you can light the candle."


Associated Press writers Nicole Winfield in Rome, and Ciaran Giles and Harold Heckle in Madrid contributed.