The summit was organised by the KAICIID centre established by Saudi Arabia and the Holy See, among others
Kawther Al-Arbash’s son was killed after stopping a suicide bomber from Islamic State entering the Imam Hussein mosque in Dammam, a city in the east of Saudi Arabia.
Mohammed al-Essa, who was working as a security guard, chased the attacker away from the women’s entrance to the mosque but died when the bomb was detonated.
The case attracted huge attention in Saudi Arabia given that his mother, Kawthter, a prominent social media influencer and newspaper columnist, had repeatedly spoken out against religious extremism as destroying the national fabric of the country.
The killing of her son by a fanatic presented a huge test to what had been her very stance against extremism. She could have easily vented her anger and supported calls for vengeance. Instead, Kawther decided to try and find some good in a tragic situation.
“I called for everyone to come together, believing that such an incident should not divide us but unite us more than before,” she told me at a major inter-religious gathering in Vienna this week.
“I expressed my condolences to the mother of the suicide bomber, at a time where everyone around her was cursing her and criticising her for how she brought up her son. I sympathised from one mother to another. In the same way I lost my son, this mother also lost her son.
Right now, she says, her mission is to bring about reconciliation and forgiveness which she does largely through her 344,000 twitter followers and by sitting on the Shura Council, the major consultative body to the King of Saudi Arabia.
While her home country is often criticised for its lack of religious freedom, Kawther was in Vienna to talk about the need for greater openness to other faiths and cultures. She is part of a growing caucus of young people, increasingly connected through social media, calling for change.
The Austrian summit of religious leaders was organised by the Vienna-based KAICIID centre (King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue) established by Saudi Arabia and with the Holy See, Austria and Spain as founder members. Its board comprises members from all the major religions.
Critics of KAICIID, set up five years ago, have labelled it as a public relations fig leaf for a country that prevents Christians building churches and forbids Israelis from entering. In other words: “shouldn’t they get their own house in order first?”
Some of this scepticism was voiced by Benedict XVI during his 2007 meeting with King Abdullah who asked the now retired Pope to work with him on an interfaith initiative. King Abdullah stressed it was precisely because of the lack of religious freedom that the Catholic Church should start working with Saudi Arabia: interfaith dialogue, his argument went, can help us bring about internal change.
Passionate advocates for faiths getting to know one another better say it prevents the extremists from exploiting religion, breaks down barriers and helps deal with major conflicts around the world.
“Dialogue is the road that leads to peace,” Bishop Miguel Ayuso, the number two official at the Vatican’s inter-religious dialogue told me in Vienna.
While it is a long road since KAICIID’s foundation, there have been small but significant steps forward. For one thing, the Vienna summit gathered a stellar lineup of religious figures from across the globe. Over two days grand muftis, senior rabbis and cardinals rubbed shoulders and broke bread together. There was even a Muslim-Christian double act of Imam Omar Kobine Layama and Cardinal Dieudonné Nzapalainga from Central African Republic, who arrived and worked together throughout the event which took place at a hotel in the city centre.
Beneath the bonhomie, however, lurked a rather large elephant in the room - namely the dreadful persecution of Christians and other minorities across the Middle East and in parts of Africa, fuelled by extremism and the growth of Islamic State.
Two days before the conference I stood in the rain in front of Rome’s Colosseum to hear Asia Bibi’s 18-year-old daughter break down in tears as she explained how she watched her mother being “dragged away” and imprisoned for allegedly insulting the Prophet Mohammed.
Standing nearby was Rebecca Bitrus, a Nigerian Catholic woman captured by Jihadist militants Boko Haram. She was raped and then gave birth to the child of her captor.
After they spoke the Colosseum, the execution site for the early Christians, was bathed in red to commemorate those still being persecuted more than 2,000 years later. And last Saturday the Pope described Asia and Rebecca as “matryrs” and models for a world that has become “afraid of pain”.
But what the Pope and the Holy See reject is a clash of civilisations narrative between Christians and Muslims. Under this pontificate, inter-religious dialogue has become one of - if not the - top priorities as the Church surveys the conflicts across the world.
Religions, it was explained in Vienna, play a key role in the 30-50 of the most fragile and conflict-prone states around the globe and western politicians are slowly waking up to this.
Adama Deing, adviser on preventing religious genocide to the United Nations’ secretary general, told participants there is increased interest for political leaders to work with religious faiths on security, cohesion and peace and called for “more spirituality” at the UN. There were a number of diplomats and policy makers at the event, including an official from the British Foreign Office.
When it comes to the plight of Christians in the Middle East, participants at the conference say there are hopeful signs from the reform push currently being undertaken by the Saudi crown prince, Mohammad Bin Salman. Slowly, but surely, this theocracy - one of the major power players in the Middle East - is opening up to the world.
The title of the conference in Vienna - “Promoting peaceful coexistence and common citizenship” - was considered significant for its inclusion of the word “citizenship”.
In the past, one inter-religious dialogue veteran told me, Islamic powers would talk simply about the “protection” of Christians and other minorities in their country. To this the reply was: “We don’t want your protection we want to be part of the society where we live, pay taxes and contribute.” Christian communities, for example, have been part of Arab countries for centuries.
A major shift in this area took place, however, with the 2016 Marrakech declaration, signed by 250 heads of state form the Muslim world, religious leaders and scholars on the rights of religious minorities. This event happened following the persecution of Christians Yazidis and others by Islamic State, and it is the rise of the latter that is pushing Muslims countries to revise the position.
The Marrakech text calls for scholars to “develop a jurisprudence of the concept of ‘citizenship’ which is inclusive of diverse groups” and for hardliners to overcome their “selective amnesia that blocks memories of centuries of joint and shared living on the same land”.
It was also built on the Charter of Medina, drafted by the Prophet Mohammed in 622 as a constitution for Muslims and different religious believers to live alongside one another. Co-existence of religions in Muslim countries is not a new thing, and a case of rediscovering resources from inside the Islamic tradition.
When it comes to religious violence, the consistant refrain form Muslim scholars and leaders in Vienna was to deny it is anything to do with Islam. While the Pope has been praised for his de-linking of Islam to terrorism, others say to dismiss suicide bombers as having nothing to do with the religious faith they purport to follow is simplistic. “Religion can be the elixir of life or the potion of death,” Rabbi David Rosen, a KAICIID board member and inter-religious adviser to the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, told me.
“It touches the deepest dimension of our identities, and it is wrapped up in all aspects of human identity - personal, familial, congregational, national - and all these aspects can be abused, and when they are abused religion goes along with that.”
None of the major religions, Rabbi Rosen pointed out, are pacifist but the big question is what constitutes legitimate self-defence. There is a complex relationship between religion and violence that needs to be studied.
He stressed that the the antidote to abuse of religion is overcomingthe alienation and demonisation that can occur between faiths, which in turn paves the way for violence.
At interfaith gatherings such as the one in Vienna, Rabbi Rosen says he makes a point of meeting Saudi clerics, some of whom have “never met a Jew, let alone a rabbi, and let alone an Israeli rabbi”. It is these personal encounters that make far more impact than speeches and documents.
The work of inter-religious dialogue is slow, at times frustrating and is hard to put into a box with “achievable aims” written on it. It can become mired in difficulty and incite passionate emotions. Yet it is only by following this narrow path that we can help those suffering for their faith and be a sign post for peace in an increasingly violent - and religious - world.
PICTURE: Sultan Muhammadu Sa'ad Abubakar III, the Sultan of Sokoto, speaking at the KAIICID summit in Vienna (image/Christopher Lamb)