By Tom Heneghan, Religion Editor
VIENNA (Reuters)- A Saudi-backed center to promote interfaith dialogue worldwide began work in Vienna on Monday by bringing hundreds of religious activists together to discuss how to promote understanding among different beliefs.
Named after Saudi King Abdullah, the center is a welcome boost for bridge-building between faiths in an era of financial austerity but has drawn criticism because Saudi Arabia enforces a strict Islam and bans non-Muslim religious practice.
The Centre, launched by Saudi Arabia as an international organization with multifaith oversight, aims to help religions contribute to solving problems such as conflicts, prejudice and health crises rather than be misused to worsen them.
"The prime purpose is to empower the active work of those in the field, whether in the field of dialogue, of social activism or of conflict resolution," said Jerusalem-based Rabbi David Rosen, representing Judaism on the nine-seat board of directors.
"We want to empower you," he told an opening session where dialogue projects from Europe, the Middle East and Africa reported on how they worked to foster inter-faith understanding.
The center plans to work first on improving how religions are presented in media and schoolbooks, involving faith leaders in children's health campaigns in poor countries and hosting religious leaders for fellowships at its Vienna headquarters.
CAUTIOUS ROAD TO REFORM
The King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue (KAICIID) is the latest step in the monarch's cautious reform process at home and in improving relations with other faiths around the world.
Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said he hoped it would "bring peace and understanding between the various religions. Religion has been the basis for many conflicts."
Spurred into action by the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States - in which most of the militants involved were Saudi nationals - and radical Islamist bombings in Saudi Arabia two years later, the king has brought together Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims to discuss how to counter extremism in Islam.
He hosted an interfaith conference in 2008 but had to hold it in Madrid because the kingdom is so conservative. However, Saudi officials at the Vienna conference stressed the dialogue message was being spread back home as well.
"The aim is to promote acceptance of other cultures, moderation and tolerance," said Fahad Sultan AlSultan, deputy head of a Saudi national dialogue effort launched in 2003. "There are problems but we have achieved some success."
KAICIID is managed by a board with 3 Muslims, 3 Christians, a Jew, a Buddhist and a Hindu. About 450 activists attended its first conference and over 800 were expected on Monday evening for its formal inauguration in the Hofburg imperial palace.
Board member Reverend Toby Howarth said its international status sponsored by Austria, Saudi Arabia and Spain gave the center several advantages over non-governmental organizations or church groups working on similar issues.
It would have more "pulling power" dealing with government ministers on issues such as improving the way religions are presented in a country's schoolbooks, said Howarth, who is interfaith adviser to the Archbishop of Canterbury.
The fact that King Abdullah is the custodian of Islam's two holiest mosques, in Mecca and Medina, would "have weight in some Muslim countries", he added.
The Vatican said last Friday the center would also serve as a forum to speak up for the religious rights of Christians in Muslim-majority countries. Many foreign workers in Saudi Arabia are Christians but no churches can be built there.
Austrian Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger defended the establishment of KAICIID in Vienna, saying "it is my deep conviction that there is no alternative to this dialogue".
But the centre's Austrian critics kept up a drumbeat of criticism. A group called Liberal Muslims held a small protest outside the Hofburg against Saudi human rights violations.
The Green Party said Austria was naive to think Saudi Arabia, which has financed many mosques espousing the austere Wahhabi form of Islam in Europe, had no ulterior motives in paying for the centre's headquarters and first 3 years' budget.
KAICIID officials say the center is independent and would not be promoting any one religion.
(Additional reporting by Georgina Prodhan Editing by Mark Heinrich)
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