Saudi Interfaith Center Sparks Controversy in Austria over Imprisoned Activist

Amnesty International/Twitter
Amnesty International/Twitter

A Saudi Arabia-funded institute for interreligious dialogue in Vienna has ignited controversy among politicians and citizen groups alike. Austrian politicians have publicly asked how Saudi Arabia can have a dialogue center in Vienna and simultaneously persecute free speech activists in their own country.

The King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Center for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue (KAICIID), an institution financed by Saudi Arabia and politically supported by Austria, Spain, and the Vatican, has been facing increased criticism after the recent first round of punishment of Saudi activist Raif Badawi.

Last week Badawi, a 30-year-old blogger and freedom of expression activist, received the first 50 lashes of a total of one thousand to which he was sentenced for having equated the different religions in an article he posted. He is also sentenced to 10 years in prison and a substantial fine.

Badawi has been in jail since mid-2012, and his website has been shut down. His wife and three children are in exile in Canada.

The following 50 lashes, scheduled for Friday, were suspended for health reasons, according to the human rights organization Amnesty International, a fact that they said illustrates the severity of the flogging.

The Austrian section of Amnesty International subsequently organized a massive protest outside the Saudi Arabian embassy in Vienna, which was held on Friday.

The interfaith center itself has refused to denounce the penalty suffered by the young Saudi blogger, saying that “our impartiality is very important.”

Critics consider that the center, funded largely by Saudi Arabia, only seeks to improve the international image of the Arab country where there is no freedom of worship.

The Federal Chancellor of Austria, Werner Faymann, this week demanded the closure of KAICIID.

“This center does not fulfill its duties of dialogue and is silent on basic issues of human rights. We will not tolerate this. It is clear to me from today’s perspective that we should get out,” Faymann told the newspaper Der Standard.

The Federal President, Heinz Fischer, and the foreign minister, Sebastian Kurz, were also critical of the center but are not in favor of closing it.

The Cardinal of Vienna, Christoph Schönborn, has also come out against closing the center, saying he believes that the measure would be “counterproductive.”

According to a government statement, on Monday President Fischer requested full pardon for Badawi in a meeting with the Saudi ambassador in Vienna.

According to the Austrian president, Badawi’s case “roils and reduces the possibilities of dialogue” and the form of his sentence is “unacceptable” and “inhuman.”

Suspending Friday’s scourging was an “important step,” the minister said in a statement, but added that the whole sentence, including 10 years in prison and a substantial financial penalty, should be suspended.

Spain, Austria, and the Vatican are the political sponsors of the center.

Funded so far with about 15 million euros by Saudi Arabia, the KAICIID was opened in November 2012 in the presence of the foreign ministers of the partner countries.

Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome.