11 November 2016, The Tablet

Controversial Saudi-backed interfaith centre defends its approach to religious freedom

KAICIID says it must be given a chance to 'bed down' and interference from non-believers in the west is unhelpful

Religious freedom in the Middle East must given time to bed down but interference from non-believers in the west is unhelpful, according to the leader of a controversial Saudi Arabia-funded inter-faith organisation. 

Faisal Bin Abdulrahman Bin Muaammar, the secretary-general of the Vatican-backed King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interfaith and Intercultural Dialogue (KAICIID), said that Islam teaches respect for other religions, but the question was how to apply this principle to countries in an unstable region where religion was a major force. 

“All Muslims should recognise Christians and Jews,” he told The Tablet. “Any Muslim who does not believe in Moses or Jesus, he is not a Muslim. This is not only holy teaching, it is part of the religion itself. How to practise it and how to make it a law in each country, this needs development. It is coming … through knowing each other.” 

Speaking in Rome last week where he was attending a conference organised by KAICIID and the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and where organisers met with Pope Francis, he said: “The question is always ‘do we have one fixed system all over the world that we can apply to the others?’ We have to learn from one another. I am a strong advocate of learning from each experience.”

Bin Muaammar, a well-connected Saudi politician, said that western agencies lecturing the Middle East on religious freedom was counter-productive, particularly when many of these representatives were non-believers.   

“They are coming to talk about religious freedom which really shocks some people because the one who’s speaking to them is not a believer himself,” he said. “Its a matter of how we respect the beliefs of others. If you are coming to me without listening to me about what I believe and what I understand is good for my society then you are insulting me.” 

Sharp contrasts have been drawn with the centre’s aims for religious dialogue and Saudi Arabia’s human rights record and lack of religious freedom: conversions from Islam to another religion can be punishable by death while Raef Badawi, an atheist and civil rights blogger, has been sentenced to 1,000 lashes for insulting the Muslim faith. 

When asked about the case of Mr Badawi - who recent reports say is facing another round of flogging - Bin Muaammar said he could not speak on behalf of the Saudi Government. Instead he stressed that applying religious freedom to Middle Eastern countries’ constitutions would eventually be implemented. “It is a matter of time and trust and it will develop,” he stressed.

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