On 12 March 1938 Austria was annexed to the German Reich. Hitler pronounced this move in a speech before the Hofburg Palace on the Heldenplatz in Vienna. As with many places in this beautiful capital city, the glorious architecture and ambience resonate with darker echoes of human capitulation to violence and the greed for power.
In a few weeks time the doors of the Hofburg will open to a large number of people who will inaugurate and celebrate an adventurous initiative in bringing people together despite their profound differences. The King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue (KAICIID) will open in Vienna and offer a well-resourced centre for dialogue between people of different faiths and cultures. (Which I guess is a bit obvious from the title…)
We have been engaged in this initiative for several years and it has sometimes proved a bit of a tightrope. For example, it is easy to point the finger at the sponsoring regime and identify certain weaknesses in domestic religious freedoms. Yet, bold initiatives such as this one come at cost for everyone, not least those in Saudi Arabia who defy the fundamentalists and take small steps towards opening up. Better to engage with honesty and integrity and begin change than to sit in the place of superior righteousness and shout from the safe sidelines?
The Centre introduces itself as follows:
The King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue was founded to enable, empower and encourage dialogue among followers of different religions and cultures around the world. Located in Vienna, the Centre is an independent international organization, independent of political or economic influence. The Founding States of the Centre (Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Republic of Austria and Kingdom of Spain) constitute the “Council of Parties” responsible for overseeing the establishment of the Centre; the Vatican plays a Founding Observer role at this level.
If you are sceptical about this, consider the founding Board of Directors: The Board of the Centre comprises high-level representatives of the five major world religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism). What this doesn't spell out is that includes Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Anglican Christians, Sunni and Shia Muslims, a Jewish Chief Rabbi, a leading Hindu and Buddhist. Its Secretariat of approximately twenty five employees when fully staffed, is headed by a Secretary General. A soon to be established Advisory Forum of up to 100 members of other religions, cultural institutions and international organisations will provide a further resource of interreligious and intercultural perspective.
What surprised me at a meeting in London today was the ease of relationship, the humour that emerged in surprising places, the professional and business-like attention to detail, and the realism that accompanies the work. There was also the key recognition that (a) hospitality is the key to good relationships and reformed prejudices, and (b) dialogue is worked out at many levels, but that what happens on the street matters more than what happens around the table of experts. (Which is also why it is bad that so many Christians are leaving the Middle East in general – a dreadful side-effect of recent wars – because it removes from daily engagement and encounter people who are different.)
As we enter the Hofburg from the Heldenplatz in late November, I will not be thinking about the grandeur of the venue or the ambition of the enterprise. Rather, I will be conscious of the cost to humanity and the world if we neglect our responsibility to take risks for the sake of human flourishing and peace. 1938-45 shows what happens when fear and idolatry make people timid in the face of apparent power.