The Austrian government is moving to close the Saudi-funded interfaith center, King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue (KAICIID), in Vienna.  On 12 June 2019, Austrian Members of Parliament (MPs) voted on a resolution demanding that the interfaith center be shut down. The measure was part of a larger attempt to prevent the execution of 18-year-old Murtaja Qureiris – who was facing the death penalty in Saudi Arabia. Queriris was arrested in 2014 for his involvement in protests during the 2011 Arab Spring, when he was only ten years old. Due to international pressure, the Saudi government ended up sentencing Qureiris to 12 years in prison instead of a death sentence. The resolution also raised other concerns regarding Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, including the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. 

The Saudi-funded interfaith center first opened in Vienna in 2012, which aimed to promote peace, resolve conflicts and encourage tolerance between various religions through dialogue.  The Center has faced an immense amount of criticism considering Saudi Arabia’s history of human rights abuses, including state-sponsored religious intolerance. The Government of Saudi Arabia particularly discriminates against its Shia Muslim population – cracking down on their freedom to participate in religious and cultural practices. Government regulations prevent Shia Muslims from building mosques outside of approved areas, businesses discriminate against them in hiring practices, and Shia are underrepresented in senior government and academic positions. Additionally, members of the Shia community disproportionately face the death penalty for expressing dissent or for participating in peaceful protests and assemblies. 

Setting up interfaith centers in other countries in an effort to whitewash human rights abuses is a common practice and extremely problematic.  Saudi Arabia’s neighbor, Bahrain, has similarly tried to cover up its systematic religious discrimination with various public relations stunts. In 2018, for example, Bahrain funded a professorship called the King Hamad Chair for inter-religious dialogue and peaceful co-existence, at La Sapienza in Italy. Also in 2018, Bahrain held a side-event in New York City during the 73rd Session of the United Nations General Assembly on religious tolerance.  

The KAICIID and the King Hamad Chair for inter-religious dialogue and peaceful co-existence, along with other efforts to falsely tout a commitment to religious freedom, offer repressive governments a way to deflect allegations of severe human rights violations. The carefully planned names and missions of these institutions are clearly meant to conceal the kingdoms’ government-sanctioned religious discrimination and give the illusion that these countries promote religious freedom. The Austrian government’s decision to close the King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue is laudable, and other countries should follow in their footsteps.

Tovah Bloomfield is an Advocacy Intern at ADHRB