When it was founded in 2011, the King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue (Kaiciid) appeared to the world as an incongruous outfit.
The idea that Saudi Arabia was creating a hub for interreligious education looked like a PR stunt from what is seen as one of the world’s most repressive governments.
Neither has there been much evidence for sceptics to reassess their views. Although the organisation held four regional conferences in Austria, Ethiopia, India and Argentina this year that sought to connect educators and “disseminate standards” in intercultural work, and in March joined up with Unicef to launch a multi-faith education project on children’s health in Africa, it has largely remained below the media radar.
Last week’s international forum, titled “The Image of the Other”, sought to change that. Bringing together around 800 delegates from all corners of the world for a three-day, all expenses-paid conference at the Vienna Hilton, the event aimed to permanently link up religious leaders, educators and policy-makers; identify best practice in interreligious and intercultural education; and push for policy change at a governmental level.
Simply by holding the conference, Kaiciid may have ticked several of those boxes: the scale of the event and the large number of heavyweight guests gave it a level of influence never seen before in interfaith gatherings.
As well as several government ministers, significant participants included the Grand Mufti of Egypt, Dr Shawqi Ibrahim Abdel-Karim Allam; International Director of Interreligious Affairs of AJC and Kaiciid board member Rabbi David Rosen; and Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, president of the Vatican’s interreligious council.
“The magnitude here is important. Eight hundred people have come here, maybe they will go back and tell a different story,” said former MK and interfaith activist Rabbi Michael Melchior.
The rabbi added that the event should be judged not on whether it fulfils a dream of interreligious harmony but whether “hearts had been opened. The pulling down of the walls of fear, of scepticism, it has to start somewhere.”
The presence of Rabbi Melchior’s Israeli contingent was, in itself, a major achievement. He said: “The fact that we have come here as Israelis, as Zionists, that is what makes this special. I am sitting with religious leaders from Arab countries who otherwise I would not have a chance to sit with. This is a Muslim initiative — that is one of the central messages.”
The Reverend Toby Howarth, the Secretary of Interreligious Affairs to the Archbishop of Canterbury and Kaiciid board member, emphasised that the gathering was about allowing crucial back-channels to be opened up. “An event like this is less about pushing some big agenda from the front than allowing a space where this minister can get to that minister, or one religious leader can have a word with another.
“Maybe that is not as spectacular as we would like. But we are talking about major issues here. This is the beginning of a process,” he said.
There was also confidence that the lessons on interfaith education arising from the gathering could have an impact on people around the world.
Rabbi Rosen, whose presence on Kaiciid’s Saudi-founded board of directors as an Israeli citizen is remarkable in itself, said: “This event is the interaction between government ministers and the interfaith world. The capacity to impact on millions of people through this synergy is enormous.
“We would like to see education about other heritages become a required, integral part of school syllabuses in every country. This is essential for the wellbeing of the world.”
Faisal bin Muaammar, Kaiciid’s secretary-general, said that the organisation was “uniquely” positioned to bring government representatives and top religious leaders together, adding: “From my work with the African Union and in Lebanon, I have seen that countries’ leaders are ready to listen to us.”
A consensus emerged during the event’s plenary panel discussion that the world was ready for the kind of cross-barrier networking that is central to the Kaiciid message. Dr Mohammad Sammak, secretary-general of Lebanon’s National Committee for Christian-Muslim Dialogue and a Kaiciid Board member, said: “The world has never looked more malleable. A few years ago it looked as if we would remain in fixed blocks.”
Al-Shaikh Al-Mahfoudh bin Bayyah, the president of the Global Centre for Renewal and Guidance in the UK, known for his stance against Islamic extremism, stressed that “no one can be a Muslim unless he recognises all people as brothers. Islam sees itself as a compliment to other religions — this is a deep-rooted belief.”
Not all participants sought to engage with representatives of other religions though positive gestures, however.
Buddhist Dr Yifa of the Woodenfish Foundation, laid down a challenge to the monotheistic delegates, saying: “The reason for conflict between religions is the ‘dualism’ of our thinking; we have divided the world into heaven and hell, faithful and infidel”. The real, universal barrier to working better together was “ego”, she said, and the refusal to accept that “there is no ultimate truth”.
Among the many insightful thoughts on how the globe’s religions can begin to talk to each other, perhaps the most eloquent came from Dr Farhan Nizami, the founder of the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies. He said: “The intention is not to impose artificial homogeneity on religion, just to create bridges.
“We need bridges of understanding that are strong enough to carry the weight of our differences. Belief is not the problem, it is the way that belief gets translated into belonging — that is where the ‘us and them’ dilemma comes from.”
Rabbi Melchior suggested that because religion is based on values rather than “power relations”, it can provide a way for humankind to work through its differences. In that way, said the rabbi, “we can turn the ‘other’ into our ‘brother’.”
Muslims, Jews sign petition
Following a recent report by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe describing male ritual circumcision as a “violation of the physical integrity of children”, a coalition of rabbis, imams and religious leaders from across Europe has launched a petition to fight all moves to limit religious freedom.
Rabbi Marc Schneier, president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, announced the initiative, saying that religious leaders were failing their constituents by describing the matter as solely a Jewish or Muslim concern.
“Muslims and Jews today, in Europe and around the world, are far more united than divided in many areas. As a joint force we urge the European community to respond to this disturbing precedent which would be created if this ban is allowed to go ahead,” he said.
The petition is the first of its kind, having been signed by both Muslims and Jews. It says: “If Europe truly aspires to become a pluralistic society where people of all faiths and backgrounds can co-exist fruitfully, it must reject attempts to dictate standards that make life impossible for people of diverse faith traditions.”