VATICAN CITY (CNS) — A new Saudi-backed interfaith center will provide an opportunity for the church to promote religious freedom for Christians and others around the world, said the head of the Vatican’s office for interreligious dialogue.

The King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz International Center will offer “another opportunity for open dialogue on many issues, including those related to fundamental human rights, in particular religious freedom in all its aspects, for everybody, for every community, everywhere,” said Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran during the opening of the center in Vienna Nov. 26.

“The Holy See is particularly attentive to the fate of Christian communities in countries where such a freedom is not adequately guaranteed,” said the cardinal, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue.


Cardinal Tauran joined U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople and other dignitaries in Vienna for the inauguration of the center, which is named for and financed by the king of Saudi Arabia.

The foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia, Spain and Austria — the center’s founding nations — also attended. The Vatican is assisting the project as a “founding observer.”

Saudi Arabia forbids the practice of any religion except Islam, even in private. Groups of liberal Muslims and members of the Austrian Green Party protested the center in the days leading up to its inauguration.

Cardinal Tauran said there were high expectations that King Abdullah’s new initiative would be marked by “honesty, vision and credibility.”

The center will act as a clearinghouse to gather information, new ideas and initiatives as well as be a kind of watchdog, to verify and act on human rights’ “failures,” the cardinal said, so that no one might be “deprived of the light and the resources that religion offers for the happiness of every human being.”

In working to support people’s material, moral and spiritual aspirations, people of all faiths must strive to respect others, learn more about others’ religious traditions and find ways people’s quest for truth can be “realized in freedom and serenity,” he said.

Explaining the Vatican’s role in the new initiative, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, said the center’s purpose of furthering interreligious and intercultural dialogue was a “basic and an urgent need for the humanity of today and tomorrow.”

The Vatican will use its role in the center to call for the “effective respect of the fundamental rights of Christians who live in countries with a Muslim majority, in order to promote authentic and integral religious liberty,” the spokesman said in a statement Nov. 23.

He said the Vatican was participating in the center “in order better to put to use her experience and trusted expertise in the field of interreligious dialogue.” He also noted that the center’s co-founding states, Austria and Spain, “have centuries-old Christian traditions.”

Rabbi David Rosen, international director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee, said that by supporting concrete initiatives for peace and reconciliation the center can be religion’s “constructive voice” in areas of the world where religion is manipulated to foment conflict.

One of the main reasons peace treaties or other political initiatives fail, he said, is they neglect “the religious dimension of the conflict” and therefore lack “the necessary psychological and spiritual support” of the people involved, he told the Austrian daily newspaper, Der Standard, Nov. 25.

While acknowledging that Saudi Arabia might use the center as a promotional “showpiece” without making real reforms at home, the rabbi said healthy skepticism shouldn’t be allowed to cut off hope.

“King Abdullah told us that (his) country is very conservative and traditional, and that things can’t be changed overnight. But if people see us collaborating, their outlook may change,” Rabbi Rosen said. “I think the king and his (government) ministers seriously intend to introduce change in Saudi Arabia. The center must contribute to that.”


Contributing to this story was Francis X. Rocca at the Vatican.