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Saudi Prince Donations to Better Muslim-Christian Understanding Welcomed, Criticized

A Saudi Arabian prince gave $20 million to two prestigious U.S. universities earlier this week to advance the study of Islam and to promote greater Muslim-Christian understanding.
( [email protected] ) Dec 18, 2005 03:45 AM EST

A Saudi Arabian prince gave $20 million to two prestigious U.S. universities earlier this week to advance the study of Islam and to promote greater Muslim-Christian understanding.

Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal, one of the world's top billionaires, granted the large gifts to Harvard and Georgetown University, both of which received the prince's generosity.

"We are grateful to Prince Alwaleed for his generous gift to Harvard," said university president Lawrence Summers, according to AFP.

The monetary gift will be used to build on Harvard's commitment to the study of the religious traditions of the world, create a program on Islamic studies, and also to make rare Islamic texts available in digital format.

Georgetown, meanwhile, will be using the gift to expand its Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, which will be renamed the HRH Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal. It will endow three faculty chairs, expand outreach activities, provide new scholarship support for students, broaden opportunities for research and policy discussions and expand the center's library facilities as it deepens "Georgetown's ability to advance education in the fields of Islamic civilization and Muslim-Christian understanding and strengthen its presence as a world leader in facilitating cross-cultural and interreligious dialogue," said John J. DeGioia, president of the Jesuit-run university, in a released statement.

"At this time of world conflict, Georgetown is committed to build upon our role as a Catholic, Jesuit institution in fostering greater understanding among religions around the world," he added.

While the donations were well-received by the two institutions, International Christian Concern President Jeff King released a statement on Friday denouncing the donations.

"Saudi Arabian Prince Alwaleed's $20 million donation to Harvard and Georgetown (for Islamic studies and to promote Islamic/Christian understanding) is an act of supreme hypocrisy and duplicity," said King. "At home, Saudi Arabia has a zero tolerance policy towards any religion except Islam. It has a long record of arresting, imprisoning, torturing, and even executing those involved in Christianity."

According to an earlier report by Nina Shea, director of Freedom House's Center for Religious Freedom, the Saudi Arabian government had been distributing literature throughout the United States to build "a wall of resentment." The hate literature was criticized as an effort to cause division between Muslims and other groups including Jews and Christians.

"In Saudi Arabia, children are indoctrinated throughout their educational journey in the hatred of Jews, Christians and the United States,” King continued. “At the same time, Saudis spend hundreds of millions of dollars annually in the U.S. for PR and to buy influence in the United States Congress. Their message is that they are our constant friends.”

Upon giving the donations, which was the largest single gift Georgetown had ever received, Prince Alwaleed said in a statement, "It is vital for the monotheistic religions to reach a common ground of understanding and to gain knowledge about what unites our civilizations. We are determined to build a bridge between Islam and Christianity for tolerance that transcends cultural and geographical boundaries."

Recently Saudi Arabia was designated for the second time as a "Country of Particular Concern" by the U.S. State Department. The annual International Religious Freedom report declared Saudi Arabia as a country where "freedom of religion does not exist" since 1999.

"We would suggest that if [the prince] truly wishes to make a difference in Islamic-Christian relations that he should start at home with the cessation of arrests and beatings of Christians," said King. "If he wants Americans to learn more about Islam in a positive light, he should revise the educational materials that Saudis are raised on that teach them to hate the Jew, the Christian, and the American."

Prince Alwaleed is considered one of the world's leading philanthropists. He recently agreed to finance the construction of a new Islamic wing at the Louvre Museum in Paris.