Religion and policy collide in Saudi-hosted interfaith forum

The G-20 interfaith forum will be virtually hosted by Riyadh this year, while the kingdom faces mounting criticism for human rights violations and religious persecution.

al-monitor Unidentified guests attend a meeting of finance ministers and central bank governors of the G-20 nations in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Feb. 23, 2020. Photo by FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP via Getty Images.
Joe Snell

Joe Snell

@joesnell03

Topics covered

Human rights

Oct 15, 2020

Saudi Arabia is presiding over a global forum this week that marries faith and policy and invites religious representatives to address the coronavirus pandemic, inequality, climate change and other societal challenges. The event began Oct. 13 and welcomes Christian priests, Muslim clerics, Jewish rabbis and other religious figures to a virtual space that is hosted as part of the kingdom’s yearlong presidency of the Group of 20 (G-20).

“The potential of religious communities as a partner for policymakers often goes unrecognized,” said Faisal bin Abdulrahman bin Muaammar, secretary-general of the King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Center for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue, in a statement.

When the G-20 launched in 1999, the forum's primary focus was global financial stability. The group of 19 countries as well as the European Union, including Saudi Arabia and Turkey from the MENA region, regularly conferred with finance ministers, foreign ministries, central bank governors and global think tanks to discuss solutions to the world markets. G-20 economies collectively account for about 90% of the gross world product and 80% of world trade. 

At the time, the G-20 was born out of massive debt crises that had spread across emerging markets in the late 1990s. But that focus has expanded with the group’s adoption of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Climate Agreement. Today, the group is tasked with handling “issues of global significance,” including migration, health care and development aid.

The G-20 Interfaith Forum was first convened under the G-20 umbrella in 2014 to join faith and policy efforts and to discuss how to introduce religiously linked institutions and initiatives to their global conversation. 

“Virtually all of [the sustainable development goals] can be achieved if there is cooperation and synergy with the religious sector,” said W. Cole Durham, Jr., president of the G-20 Interfaith Forum Association, in a public video address. “For that reason, it’s particularly important to have a religious input into the G-20 process.”

Agenda items at this year’s forum include combatting racism and hate speech; the advancement of migrants, refugees, women and youth; the issue of modern slavery and human trafficking; protection of religious and cultural heritage; and strategies to combat climate change. 

An entire day of this year’s program will also discuss the coronavirus pandemic as it pertains to religious communities that on the one hand are blamed for rising infection rates and on the other are leading initiatives for aid distribution.

Saudi Arabia assumed the rotating G-20 presidency in December 2019. The forum's Riyadh summit will be held next month and chaired by Saudi King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud.

“The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has always supported the efforts of religious leaders from different religious traditions and policy makers to tackle global challenges in a spirit of tolerance and mutual respect,” said Abdullah Alhomaid, secretary-general of the Saudi-based National Committee for Interfaith and Intercultural Dialogue, in a statement.

An emergency G-20 summit in March addressed a planned global response to the coronavirus pandemic, but human rights organizations like Amnesty International have expressed disappointment at the international forum for excluding strategies such as guaranteeing access of information to all people and preventing the spread of the virus in prisons by demanding the release of pretrial detainees and Saudi prisoners including Raif Badawi, Loujain al-Hathloul and Samar Badawi.

While Riyadh has begun an outreach to Jewish and Christian groups in recent years, the kingdom has been marred by human rights violations. A 2019 report by the US Office of International Religious Freedom found that Saudi Arabia was still one of the world’s worst offenders of religious oppression, citing the kingdom’s brutal crackdowns and executions. 

"The government does not allow the public practice of any non-Muslim religion," the report cites. "The law criminalizes anyone who challenges, either directly or indirectly, the religion or justice of the King or Crown Prince."

On Oct. 13, the state failed in a bid to win a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council. The next day, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud following the launch of the US-Saudi strategic dialogue. Pompeo noted that he had pressed his counterpart on “human rights reforms, including the need to allow free expression and peaceful activism.”

“I think there was a lot of hope at first with the change of leadership that things would open up substantially,” said Sam Brownback, US ambassador at large for international religious freedom at a special briefing last June. “We need to see actions take place in a positive direction, but they continue to be one of the worst actors in the world on religious persecution.”