There is no doubt the meeting between King Salman and Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, President of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, in Riyadh last week was historic. Although the late King Abdullah held a groundbreaking meeting with Pope Benedict XVI in 2007 — the first time a Saudi ruler had met with a pope in the Vatican — the official visit of Cardinal Tauran was the first to Saudi Arabia by a senior Catholic figure.
The meeting emphasized the importance of the role of followers of religions in renouncing violence and achieving stability, which was also the message stressed during the meeting between King Abdullah and Pope Benedict. The latter also discussed the importance of dialogue in promoting peace and tolerance.
In November last year, an official Saudi delegation headed by Dr. Abdullah bin Fahd Al-Luhaidan, adviser to the Minister of Islamic Affairs, met with Pope Francis at the Vatican. It was significant because the delegation stressed that the visit was to express the Kingdom’s appreciation to the pope for his sincere positions and statements calling for peace and coexistence, his rejection of links between religions and terrorism, and his deep and sincere aspiration to promote a culture of dialogue and peaceful coexistence among followers of all religions and cultures.
All these meetings underpinned the importance of dialogue among religions and civilizations, and stressed that all nations share common values. This is a fixed policy adopted by Saudi Arabia and the Vatican, and was approved in a global conference for scholars from all over the Islamic world in Makkah in 2008.
The ongoing exchanges of visits and meetings between Saudi Arabia and the Vatican, which pre-date even the 2007 conference, signal that both have a religious and political weight that is the result of their moderate policies. These are needed to jointly confront the destructive forces of evil that try to sow the seeds of religious intolerance, bigotry and hate. The threat of these forces is shown by the increasing rate of acts of terrorism and Islamophobia and the rise of right-wing parties that propagate xenophobia and anti-immigration and anti-Islam policies in Europe and the US.
Thanks to Saudi efforts, the King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue (KAICIID) was established in Vienna in 2012 to promote dialogue among religions and civilizations, with Spain, Austria and the Vatican taking part.
In February, KAICIID organized an international conference that was attended by Dr. Yousef Al-Othaimeen, Secretary General of the Jeddah-based Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), which is considered the collective voice of the Muslim world, along with leading representatives of Christian, Jewish and other religious communities worldwide. They spoke with one voice in support of social cohesion, peaceful coexistence and respect for religious diversity.
Saudi Arabia sending strong signals of its commitment to achieving peaceful coexistence among religions worldwide is an important symbol of religions’ role in renouncing violence and achieving stability.
Over the two days of the conference, the gathered religious leaders, policymakers and experts participated in a series of discussions on topics such as the role of religious leaders and policymakers in promoting social cohesion and common citizenship, global partnerships for dialogue and promoting interreligious education and common citizenship values, and social media as a space for dialogue.
The Saudi support of peace efforts continued with the establishment of the King Salman Centre for International Peace in Malaysia and the Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology, known as Etidal (moderation), in Riyadh. In turn, the OIC — which recognizes that inter-civilizational dialogue based on mutual respect, understanding and equality is a prerequisite for international peace and security, tolerance and peaceful co-existence — also plays an active role in enriching intercultural and interfaith dialogue.
One of the most important steps taken by the OIC in this area was the establishment of the Sawt Al-Hikma (Voice of Wisdom): Center for Dialogue, Peace and Understanding. This aims to address the discourse of hatred by promoting self-revision, correcting misconceptions and extremism, and spreading the principles of coexistence and mutual understanding among different nations and civilizations.
As the number of hate crimes on the basis of religion increases, whether in the East or West, it is more necessary than ever to focus on promoting interfaith dialogue, understanding and tolerance. The heightened sense of insecurity and fear in different parts of the world due to terrorist acts committed by extremists in the name of religion, and the similar rise in feelings of fear by religious minorities due to acts of discrimination, bigotry and persecution perpetrated against them, have created an atmosphere of mutual distrust and intolerance.
This means that visits such as the one made by Cardinal Tauran and the message carried by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman during his recent tour of the US and Europe stressing moderation, tolerance and acceptance of others are a strong signal of the commitment of both sides to achieving peaceful coexistence on the basis of mutual respect and understanding.
- Maha Akeel is director of the Public Information and Communication Department at the Jeddah-based Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). Twitter: @MahaAkeel1