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OIC chief seeks cultural tolerance

OIC Secretary-General Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu yesterday emphasized the importance of cultural and religious tolerance to promote global peace. “It should be given a prominent place on global agenda,” he said.
Addressing a symposium, the OIC chief said the concept of clash of civilizations had created fears between the East and West. “Our main problem is the lack of knowledge about the other,” he pointed out.
The symposium was organized by the King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz International Center for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue (KAICIID) in cooperation with the Turkish Parliament and the European Union.
Ihsanoglu raised the issue of Islamophobia, saying it would contribute to increasing violence and tension. “It’s an abuse of the identity of nations and honor of humanity,” he said, and urged Western countries to resolve the issue by enacting laws and regulations.
He said the Organization of Islamic Cooperation has set up a center to monitor Islamophobia in different parts of the world and appointed a special envoy to deal with the issue.
The symposium was held on the occasion of the center’s opening. Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and senior officials from Austria, Spain and other parts of the world were expected to attend the opening ceremony.
The center is the brainchild of King Abdullah. He started by hosting an emergency Islamic summit in Makkah in 2005 that endorsed interfaith dialogue to redress “the existing lack of mutual understanding among cultures and civilizations”.
“This is an important initiative taken by Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah, this initiative began on national level with King Abdul Aziz Center For National Dialogue, and then Islamic dialogue, and now on a global level with International Center for Interfaith and Intercultural Dialogue in Vienna,” said the center’s Secretary-General Faisal bin Muaammar.
The king visited Pope Benedict at the Vatican in 2007, a first for a Saudi king.
The following year, he convened 500 Muslim religious leaders in Makkah, including former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, to give their blessings to large-scale talks with leaders of other faiths.
Saudi Arabia then organized a major multireligious conference in Madrid in July 2008, where King Abdullah met Christian, Jewish, Hindu and Buddhist leaders.
The king continued his efforts in the same direction, sponsoring a discussion on religious tolerance at the United Nations four months later that was attended by then US President George W. Bush, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Israeli President Shimon Peres.
This year, King Abdullah took a further step by proposing a dialogue center in Riyadh to promote harmony among Islam's various sects in a signal he wanted to foster greater tolerance among the various Muslim groups.
Although launched by the Kingdom and named after King Abdullah, Faisal bin Muammar, secretary-general of KAICIID, stressed it is not a Saudi entity. “This is an international institution,” he said. “About 70 percent of the world's religions are on its board. The center will be a neutral place to exchange ideas.”
In fact, the center is the first global organization focused on religion and is backed by an international treaty signed by Austria, Spain and Saudi Arabia. Most other dialogue efforts are linked to churches or nongovernmental organizations.
The Vatican, a strong supporter of the project, has joined as a founding observer and will be represented on the board, which according to the treaty must have three Christians, three Muslims, a Jew, a Hindu and a Buddhist.
Both the three sponsoring states, which appoint the board and approve its budget and projects, and the board of directors will take their decisions by majority vote.
Saudi Arabia has footed the start-up bills — about 15 million euros for the Sturany Palace building, the former library for Vienna University's theology faculty, and 10-15 million euros annually for the first three years. But the center will have to finance itself after that.
Early Monday prior to the opening ceremony, several symposiums and workshops were held in the city, showcasing the work and practices around the world in conducting interfaith dialogues.
The center plans initial work in three fields. Its “Image of the Other” program will have experts study how other faiths are portrayed in their media and education, with an eye on improving schoolbooks and public perceptions of religions.
A fellowship program will bring young leaders from all religions together for three to four months in Vienna to study selected issues and learn how each faith deals with them.
A program with the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) will involve religious leaders in Africa in efforts to support health projects for children, which militants sometimes sabotage by telling people their religion forbids them.

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