(Reuters) - The road to reform in Saudi Arabia is long and winding. In the rigidly restricted field of religion, the path is so circuitous that part of it even runs through traditionally Catholic countries like Austria and Spain.
Next Monday, a pioneering Saudi-backed center for worldwide interfaith dialogue will open in a baroque palace on Vienna's elegant Ringstrasse boulevard. Riyadh paid for the building and will foot the centre's budget for the first three years.
Such largesse from a country often ranked as one of the most religiously repressive has stirred suspicion and protest in Vienna, where critics accuse the Saudis of everything from hypocrisy to plotting to spread radical Islam in the Alps.
But the center has supporters in unexpected places, most notably in Israel. Rabbi David Rosen, the Jewish member of the centre's multifaith board of directors, says it presents an opportunity the world's religions cannot let pass.
"This is the first multifaith initiative from a Muslim source, and not just any source, but from the very hardcore heartland of Islam," said Rosen, International Director of Interreligious Affairs of the American Jewish Committee (AJC).
"It is an essential stage in King Abdullah's efforts to change Saudi Arabia itself," the Jerusalem-based rabbi said. "If there are possibilities of good things coming from this, we have to give it a try,"
The new head of the center said other faiths would play into the hands of Saudi hardliners if they refused to join before Riyadh made changes like letting Christian churches open there.
"There are 1,000 extremists just waiting to hear that," said Faisal bin Abdulrahman bin Muaammar, a former Saudi vice-minister of education. He has led the National Dialogue Centre set up in 2003 after a series of bombings convinced Riyadh it had a problem with domestic Islamist militants.
"The only way to deal with this is dialogue," he said, stressing the center will be an international organization.
SLOW PROGRESS ON LONG PATH
Considered a reformer in the arch-conservative Saudi power structure, King Abdullah, believed to be about 89, has been slowly trying to get his kingdom used to the idea - foreign to many in the powerful religious establishment - of cooperating with other faiths.
The idea is daring in a country where many clerics have no experience of other faiths and preachers and teachers have traditionally denounced non-Muslims as infidels.
But the radicalization of young Saudis raised in this blinkered atmosphere rang alarm bells in Riyadh, where the king and his aides decided a cautious opening on the religious front was needed as an antidote to intolerance.
Abdullah started by hosting a meeting of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in Mecca in 2005 that endorsed interfaith dialogue to redress "the existing lack of mutual understanding among cultures and civilizations".
He visited Pope Benedict at the Vatican in 2007, a first for a Saudi king. The following year, he convened 500 Muslim religious leaders in Mecca - including former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani of rival Shi'ite Iran - to give their blessing to large-scale talks with leaders of other faiths.
Saudi Arabia then hastily arranged a major multireligious conference in Madrid in July 2008, where the king openly met Christian, Jewish, Hindu and Buddhist leaders.
This meeting was not only impossible to stage in Saudi Arabia; so strong was their rejection of the conference idea that neither the country's grand mufti nor any of its leading clerics would agree to attend it.
The king plowed on, sponsoring a discussion on religious tolerance at the United Nations four months later that was attended by then U.S. President George W. Bush, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Israeli President Shimon Peres.
This year, Abdullah took a further step by proposing a dialogue center in Riyadh to promote harmony among Islam's various sects, a signal he wanted to foster greater tolerance among Saudi Sunnis towards the Shi'ite minority.
NOT A SAUDI CENTER
Although launched by Riyadh and named the King Abdullah International Centre for Interfaith and Intercultural Dialogue (KAICIID), bin Muaammar 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 organisation 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 non-governmental 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, a provision that ensures Riyadh cannot control the center unilaterally.
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. Although bin Muaammar is a Saudi, there is no statute saying the secretary general must be from the kingdom.
INITIAL PLANS, FURTHER POTENTIAL
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 to 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.
Given its multifaith approach, Rosen said the center had the potential to address not only global issues such as education and health but also bring religious authority, especially from the Muslim world, to bear on social and political issues.
"It hopes to contribute to make religion part of the solution where very often it is part of the problem," he said. "I'm referring specifically to places of conflict ... and that includes in particular the Holy Land."
Another board member, Metropolitan Emmanuel of the Greek Orthodox Church, said the center could be "an opportunity for Muslim communities around the world to get better acquainted with other religions".
Austrian media have given the center a frosty welcome, some going so far as to portray it as a front to spread radical Islam in the Alpine republic, and several opposition politicians have repeatedly criticized the government for supporting it.
Alev Korun, a Green Party deputy in the Austrian parliament, said Riyadh's ban on practicing other religions beside Islam in Saudi Arabia "stands in amazingly crass contradiction to the dialogue the king wants to have here".
She said the center would give undue prominence to Saudi Arabia's strict Wahhabi tradition, a minority sect that had already undermined a more moderate interpretation of Islam in Bosnia, which was once part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
"Sarajevo is not far from Vienna," she said, adding that Saudi Arabia had financed the building of Wahhabi mosques there during and after the Yugoslav wars in the 1990s.
Saudi human rights activists also ask why Riyadh should promote interreligious dialogue in Vienna while relations even with its Shi'ite and Ismaili Muslim minorities were strained.
"They should have established the center in Saudi Arabia," said Saudi dissident Mohammad al-Qahtani, now on trial for his human rights activities. "Before you educate your neighbor, you should educate your own people first."
For Bin Muaammar, criticism of the center confirms the need for it. "As we are facing some criticism here, we are facing some criticism in Saudi Arabia and everywhere in the world, but dialogue is the answer for this," he said.
EXIT IF NEEDED
Rosen said the fact Saudi Arabia had launched the center with royal approval meant some changes could be expected there. One would be holding a meeting of the board in Saudi Arabia, which now is not possible because he is an Israeli citizen and none are allowed in the kingdom.
"I would expect at some stage the whole board would be invited to Saudi Arabia," he said.
If he were not allowed to enter, that would be a reason to quit the board, Rosen said. Other possible adverse developments, such as a worsening of conditions for religious minorities or women in Saudi Arabia, could also trigger a departure.
"We are not going in there in any way in which we can't get out of it," he said. "If we feel that we - God forbid - are being exploited in any way, it is possible for us to exit."
Bin Muaammar said he had met visiting Jews in Saudi Arabia only a week or so ago and hinted some arrangement could be found to allow Rosen to attend a board session in the kingdom.
"I'm sure there will be a meeting," he said.
Among its directors are leading figures in interfaith dialogue such as Rabbi Rosen, Metropolitan Emmanuel of the Greek Orthodox Church, Rev Miguel Ayuso of the Vatican interreligious department and Rev Toby Howarth of the Church of England.
The Muslims are two Sunnis - Saudi education professor Hamad al-Majed, Mohammad Sammak of Lebanon's National Committee for Christian-Muslim Dialogue - and the Shi'ite historian Seyyed Mohajerani from Iran.
Swami Agnivesh, Indian head of the Hindu reform movement Arya Samaj, and Rev Kosho Niwano of the Japanese Buddhist lay movement Rissho Kosei-kai are the other two directors.
(Editing by Ralph Boulton)
(Reporting By Tom Heneghan)