$20 Million Saudi Gift Is Questioned

By Valerie Strauss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 15, 2008

A Virginia congressman has asked Georgetown University to explain how it used a $20 million donation from a Saudi prince for its academic center on Muslim and Christian relations.

Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R) sent a letter yesterday to university President John J. DeGioia expressing concern about the donation and asking whether the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding has ever produced any reports critical of Saudi Arabia.

Wolf has been critical of Saudi Arabia and what he calls its influence on U.S. affairs for some time. His letter to Georgetown states that the Saudi government has financed activities that is suspected of supporting Islamic militants and extremists. He asks for assurances that the center "maintains the impartiality and integrity of scholarship" befitting a great university.

"It is also important to know if the center has examined Saudi links to extremism and terrorism, including the relationship between Saudi public education and the Kingdom-supported clerical establishment, on the one hand, and the rise of anti-American attitudes, extremism and violence in the Muslim world, on the other," the letter says.

Georgetown spokesman Julie Green Bataille issued a statement saying that the school had received the letter and that university officials would respond to Wolf.

The university did release a statement saying that the gift is being used "to advance the study of Islamic civilization and Muslim-Christian understanding, and intercultural and interreligious dialogue, and educational programs in these fields. . . . through scholarship, teaching, learning and other activities consistent with the CMCU and Georgetown University's."

Center Director John L. Esposito could not be reached to comment. Officials with the Saudi Embassy did not return phone calls.

The center was founded in 1993 to build connections between the Muslim world and the West and improve understanding between Muslims and Christians. In December 2005, it received a $20 million gift, the second-largest in Georgetown's history, from Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal, a businessman and global investor, to expand. The center then added the prince's name to its own.

Wolf cited an article in the Washington Times in December about the donation and other Saudi gifts to schools across the United States, quoting some experts who were concerned that they were an effort to influence U.S. scholarship on Islam.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, a congressionally created bipartisan panel that assesses and proposes U.S. foreign policy action, has cited Saudi Arabia as a country of special concern. "The government of Saudi Arabia engages in systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of the right to freedom of religion or belief," it wrote in its 2007 annual report.

The panel recently asked the State Department to close a Saudi school in Fairfax County until the school can prove that it is not teaching extremism to its students. The State Department has said that it is studying the recommendation.

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