From left: Austrian Foreign minister Michael Spindelegger, Indian scholar and social activist Swami Agnivesh, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al Faisal and Spanish Foreign Affairs minister Jose Manuel Garcia Margallo attend a ribbon-cutting ceremony on the occasion of the opening of the 'King Abdulla Bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue' in Vienna, Austria, 26 November 2012. Image Credit: EPA

Vienna: Dialogue between religions is as necessary as ever in light of recent conflicts, UN chief Ban Ki-moon said on Monday to mark the opening in Vienna of a new centre aimed at promoting such dialogue.

Backed by Saudi Arabia, the King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue (KAICIID), has been the subject of criticism ever since its formal creation last year.

But supporters were keen to highlight its relevance at a glitzy event at Vienna’s Hofburg palace.

“We need look no further than today’s headlines to understand why this mission is so vital,” Ban told the gathering, citing the recent conflicts and religious divisions in Syria, Israel and Mali.

“Too many religious leaders have stoked intolerance, supported extremism and propagated hate... Yet we know that blaming ‘the other’ is not a political strategy for a healthy country, continent or world.”

“Religious leaders have immense influence. They can be powerful forces for cooperation and learning. They can set an example of interfaith dialogue,” the secretary general urged.

He finished by expressing his “full support and the support of the United Nations” for the centre.

The KAICIID was set up jointly by Saudi Arabia, Spain and Austria, with the Vatican acting as “founding observer.”

The centre’s board consists of three Christians, three Muslims, a Jew, a Buddhist and a Hindu. Backers hope it will promote increased tolerance not only in Europe but also in Saudi Arabia, where the ruling royal family must move cautiously in implementing reforms because of resistance from the powerful clergy.

But critics have questioned the centre’s ability to promote interreligious dialogue. Saudi Arabia currently bans any form of worship other than Islam. It has also come under fire for its application of Islamic sharia law, which includes executing by the sword people convicted of murder, apostasy or armed robbery.

Monday’s inauguration was held in the presence of other major religious leaders, including Patriarch Bartholomaus of Constantinople and the president of the Muslim World League Abdullah Al Turki, along with the foreign ministers of Spain, Austria and Saudi Arabia.

A small group of protesters had gathered outside the Hofburg palace ahead of the inauguration, backed by the Liberal Muslims Initiative of Austria and the opposition Green party, which has rejected the creation of the KAICIID since the beginning.