- The Washington Times - Monday, February 11, 2013

The underappreciated power of prayer is a prime motivating force behind a new Saudi-inspired interfaith center in Austria that seeks to become the place for world religious leaders to meet, solve problems and melt the “mountain of fears” that exists between religious people, says the Saudi official who is championing the ambitious project.

“We underestimate the wisdom of religious leaders,” said Faisal bin Abdulrahman bin Muaammar, secretary-general of the King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Center for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue.

“People may say ‘it’s only talk.’ But prayer is talk. And it is a common belief that God is there to accept the prayer,” said Mr. Muaammar, who spoke with The Washington Times after attending last week’s National Prayer Breakfast with President Obama and a host of political and religious leaders.

The annual prayer breakfast is a positive example of religious dialogue, said Mr. Muaammar, who is also adviser to King Abdullah.

Every year, thousands of people of different faiths come together “meeting and praying for the whole world.” This shows “there are people who care in every culture,” he said.

The new interfaith center, based in Vienna, Austria, is an initiative of King Abdullah, who carries the title of Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques.

In 2005, the Saudi king submitted a proposal about the center to the Islamic Summit, where it was adopted by 57 Islamic states.

Then, in 2007, King Abdullah traveled to Rome for an unprecedented meeting with Pope Benedict XVI. The two world leaders agreed that violence and terrorism have no religion or nation, and “all countries and peoples should work together to eradicate terrorism,” the interfaith center said. They also affirmed there was a need for religious and cultural dialogue among Christians, Muslims and Jews “for the promotion of peace, justice and spiritual and moral values, especially in support of the family,” according to a BBC report at the time.

The center was set up carefully to encompass major religions. Its primary supporters are Saudi Arabia, Austria and Spain, with the Vatican as a founding observer. Its nine board members represent Catholic, Anglican and Orthodox Christianity; Sunni and Shiite Islam; Judaism; Hinduism; and Buddhism. Another 100 people from world religions and faith-based organizations will be invited to join an advisory forum to further expand the center’s constituencies. Former Austrian Minister of Justice Claudia Bandion-Ortner is the center’s deputy secretary-general.

Saudi Arabia will fund the center for its first three years while other stakeholders secure an endowment, said Mr. Muaammar, who has a background in education and library science.

One of the center’s first projects — promoting education and health to families with children in six African countries — will officially start next month, with UNICEF and Religions for Peace, a 43-year-old private ecumenical organization, as partners.

Asked about skepticism that the center may have a hidden agenda, Mr. Muaammar replied that, in his view, its only objective “is to convert people to dialogue.”

World events, especially since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, exposed deep divisions between nations and cultures. There is a “mountain of fears” and misunderstandings that exist between Islam and the West, as well as between other religions, and neither military nor diplomatic solutions “have really worked,” Mr. Muaammar said.

“We are looking to find the wisdom of religious leaders to help politicians” and “create good examples for others to follow,” he said.