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Vienna to get 'multi-million' interreligious centre funded by Saudi Arabia

The Austrian Greens and moderate Muslims are infuriated after the Austrian foreign minister agreed with Saudi Arabian officials to set up an interreligious centre in Vienna.

Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) Foreign Minister and Vice Chancellor Michael Spindelegger and high-ranking representatives from Spain and Saudi Arabia signed a contract sealing their intention to create such an institution in Vienna. The institution will be located at Schottenring in the heart of the Austrian capital. Both left-wing politicians and conservative media criticised the agreement for various reasons.

Die Presse pointed out that "hardly any other country in the world" allowed less religious freedom than Saudi Arabia. "(Christian) masses can only be held secretly in private houses. Those who turn away from Islam are facing the death penalty," the conservative newspaper reports.

The paper claims that a "high two-figure million Euro sum" will be invested in the planned institution. Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud, the King of Saudi Arabia, picked Vienna "at an early stage" as headquarters of the centre for interreligious dialogue, according to Die Presse. The Viennese daily said the idea to set up such a centre first came up in 2007. It writes that Spanish capital Madrid, London in the United Kingdom and the Swiss city of Geneva were also considered as potential locations.

Political leaders have been widely criticised for failing to reject appeals to name the centre after the King of Saudi Arabia. The oil-rich nation is masterminding the logistical creation of the institution in which the world’s main religions will be representatives. Austrian Greens official Alev Korun branded the project as "highly absurd". The only Muslim member of the federal parliament (MP) told Die Presse Spindelegger "must either be incredibly naive or only interested in business relations with Saudi Arabia." The left-winger accused the foreign minister of "closing both eyes" to breaches of human rights in Saudi Arabia.

The Austrian Initiative of Liberal Muslims (ILMÖ) said it feared integration would become more difficult for Muslims in Austria as the centre may strengthen "fundamentalist-conservative Islam" in the country. Fuat Sanac, the new head of the Austrian Islamic Denomination (IGGiÖ), said he welcomed the idea to locate such a centre in Vienna. Sanac said: "What’s wrong with starting a dialogue among different peoples?" The Turk claimed the establishment of the institution could improve the situation of Christians in Saudi Arabia. Around 500,000 of the 8.5 million people living in Austria are Muslims. Most of them are Turks or Austrians whose families left Turkey to settle in the alpine country.

Spindelegger said after signing the contracts at the Albertina Museum in Vienna yesterday that the agreement between Austria, Spain and Saudi Arabia "proved the readiness to start a real dialogue." The minister for foreign affairs, who has headed the ÖVP for around half a year, emphasised Austria’s support of pluralism and human rights. The declaration of intent to organise a centre for intercultural dialogue in Austria says that "all kinds of discrimination and stereotyping based on religion or belief must be tackled."

Saudi Arabian officials refused to disclose the centre’s budget yesterday but explained that it would be funded via a Saudi foundation "totally independent from any form of political influence." Dozens of people staged a protest outside the Albertina Museum to show their disagreement with the cooperation between European politicians and the leadership of Saudi Arabia and voice their concerns considering the role of human rights and freedom of religion in the country.

The gathering of representatives of the Austrian government coalition of Social Democrats (SPÖ) and the ÖVP and politicians from Spain and Saudi Arabia to discuss final details of an interreligious centre took place around two weeks after a study revealed a worryingly high conflict potential among different ethnicities in the alpine country.

The Centre for Future Studies of Salzburg’s FH college spoke with over 1,000 Austrians to find that 53 per cent of them considered the chance that existing difficulties in the coexistence of themselves and immigrants could worsen as "very high". Around 45 per cent of interviewed Austrians said the same regarding Christians and Muslims. Around one in three (31 per cent) were of the same opinion considering Austria’s rich and poor.

The SPÖ-ÖVP administration introduced a state secretary for integration in April to fight xenophobia and highlight successful integration concepts. Vienna ÖVP deputy head Sebastian Kurz took the position which had not existed ever before in the country. His activities have been praised by many religious leaders while political rivals and some commentators accused Kurz of engaging in nothing but "blaring empty, worn-out phrases".

His bid to create more understanding between Austrians and immigrants were shattered when IGGiÖ Vice President Ahmet Hamidi was quoted as saying in June that too much sport was bad for women’s health. Hamidi announced a few days later he was misinterpreted. The physician said he was talking about the effects of extreme sport. However, Hamidi eventually decided to resign as deputy leader of IGGiÖ.

The assignment of Kurz – who has received unequivocal support from Spindelegger – is also considered as an attempt by the ÖVP to keep more people who previously backed the party from supporting the Freedom Party (FPÖ). The right-wing party overtook the ÖVP – which is close to the Roman Catholic Church – in public opinion polls some months ago. It is seen neck and neck with the Social Democrats in some surveys while most studies show a gap between the SPÖ and the FPÖ of just a few percentage points. Analysts think that the FPÖ could come first in the next federal election since many supporters of the party refuse to reveal their intentions to vote for them even in anonymous pre-ballot surveys.

These developments mean that Heinz-Christian Strache may become Austria’s first FPÖ chancellor in a possible coalition with the conservative ÖVP despite the FPÖ leader’s poor trust poll results. Many influential ÖVP officials have refused to strictly rule out a partnership with the FPÖ. The factions formed a coalition between 2000 and 2005. The decision to team up tempted the European Union (EU) to issue diplomatic sanctions on Austria. Tens of thousands of Austrians joined street marches against the FPÖ-ÖVP administration for several months.

Kurz recently called for the creation of a labour market task force to identify the biggest problems foreigners experience in their bid to find a job in Austria. The country has the lowest unemployment rate in Europe at four per cent. However, around one out of 10 foreigners residing in Austria are currently out of work. SPÖ Labour Minister Rudolf Hundstorfer rejected the idea of setting up a task force. The Social Democrat said in a radio interview he considered the efforts of labour market authorities, companies, trade unions and experts at his ministry as sufficient.

Speaking about Austrians’ preconceptions towards Muslims and religious traditions of the Islamic community in Austria, Kurz said imams should be ordered to speak German only at mosques. The state secretary said he planned to reform their education to achieve this goal and reduce prejudice and fear among Austrians. The ÖVP official – who explained he wanted immigrants to be proud of Austria and their personal achievements – stressed many times he wanted to achieve substantial improvements in the coexistence of people than short-term success in elections by repeating slogans of Strache and others.

Asked for his opinion on the living together of his fellow countrymen and native Austrians in Austria, Turkish President Abdullah Gül told the Kurier in a recent interview Austria-based Turks should try to have fluent German and Turkish "to be more successful for themselves, their families and Austria." There are 113,000 Turks in Austria. Another 70,000 residents of the country have a Turkish migratory background.

Vienna Times

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