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RELIGION

Austria to shut down Saudi-backed interfaith centre

The Austrian foreign ministry said on Wednesday it would implement a vote by MPs on the topic of closing a controversial Saudi-funded centre. The facility was created for religious dialogue in the capital Vienna.

Austria to shut down Saudi-backed interfaith centre
Faisal bin Abdulrahman Bin Muammar is the founding secretary-general of the KAICIID Centre. Photo: Alexander Klein/AFP

MPs voted on Wednesday to demand the King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue (KAICIID) be closed down following repeated criticism of Saudi Arabia's human rights record.

The latest vote was prompted by a recent case in which an 18-year-old was sentenced to death in Saudi Arabia for alleged crimes committed when he was a child.

Austria's foreign ministry said that it would comply with parliament's decision and was “checking the necessary legal steps” in order to do so.

The centre would be closed in a way that “will not cause damage to Austria's foreign policy interests and which is in line with international practice,” the ministry said in a statement.

The centre has been a periodic source of controversy since opening in 2012, with critics saying it offered the government in Riyadh a way to gloss over accusations of severe human rights violations.

In a statement on Wednesday KAICIID said it had “received the news of today's parliamentary vote with concern”.

“KAICIID stands by its record in fostering dialogue all over the world. It should be judged on this record,” the statement said.

KAICIID said its “activities cannot… be identified with any particular state”.

The centre was opened with great pomp by UN chief Ban Ki-moon and senior figures from the world's main religions.

Its founding treaty was signed by Austria, Spain and Saudi Arabia, with the Holy See participating as a founding observer.

Until recently the centre had always enjoyed a degree of political protection in Austria, particularly from the centre-right People's Party (ÖVP) and its leader Sebastian Kurz.

But the collapse of Kurz's government last month, and his subsequent removal as chancellor in a confidence vote, meant that other parties were able to join forces to vote for Wednesday's motion on KAICIID.

In 2015 the then Chancellor Werner Faymann, who hailed from the centre-left, threatened to withdraw support from the centre unless it condemned the public flogging of Saudi blogger Raef Badawi.

At that time Kurz was foreign minister and the ÖVP did not join Faymann's criticism.

ENERGY

Vienna forced to dim street lighting and cancel some Christmas illuminations

Christmas illuminations in Vienna will also be scaled back this year as part of the city's energy saving measures.

Vienna forced to dim street lighting and cancel some Christmas illuminations

Vienna, a city known for its Christmas markets and its New Year concert, is cutting back on public lighting in the face of soaring energy prices.

“There will be no Christmas illuminations this year on the Ring,” the famous boulevard that encircles the centre of the Austrian capital, city spokeswoman Roberta Kraft told AFP.

READ MORE: Five of the biggest challenges facing Austria right now

And the lights at the Christmas market in the square in front of the city hall would only be switched on at night and not at dusk, as in previous years, “which is to say about an hour later, on average, every day”, she said.

The city authorities said they had not calculated exactly how much they would save, but the move comes after energy prices have skyrocketed following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its response to Western sanctions.

Last Friday, the Austrian Energy Agency announced that its electricity price index for September rose by more than 256 percent year-on-year.

READ ALSO: Inflation at 9.2% in July: How to beat rising prices in Austria

Austria, with its population of nine million, is very dependent on tourism and its end-of-year celebrations are a major motor of the economy.

Before the Covid-19 pandemic shut down much international travel, more than four million people visited Vienna’s famous Christmas markets in 2019.

In 2021, around 30 of Vienna’s shopping streets were lit up for seven hours a day, from November 12 until early January.

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