By Tom Heneghan, Religion Editor
VIENNA (Reuters)- The violent crises in Syria, Gaza and Mali show how important it is for different religions to work together to promote understanding rather than sow hatred, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon said on Monday.
Addressing the opening of a new Saudi-backed interfaith centre in Vienna, he said the Syrian conflict was "taking on troubling sectarian dimensions" and "unrest (continues) between Israelis and Palestinians."
Valuable religious monuments had been destroyed in Mali, he said, referring to the destruction of centuries-old Muslim heritage by the radical Islamist Ansar Dine movement.
Religious leaders "can unite people based on tenets and precepts common to all creeds" but at times have also "stoked intolerance, supported extremism and propagated hate."
"I fully support your vision of religion as an enabler of respect and reconciliation," he told about 800 religious officials and activists meeting in the Austrian capital to discuss how to promote better understanding among faiths.
Named after Saudi King Abdullah, the new centre is a welcome boost for bridge-building between faiths in an era of financial austerity but has drawn criticism because Saudi Arabia enforces a strict Islamic code and bans non-Muslim religious practice.
It plans to work first on improving how religions are presented in media and schoolbooks, involving faith leaders in children's health campaigns in poor countries and hosting religious leaders for fellowships at its Vienna headquarters.
"LONG MARCH" TO REFORM
The King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue (KAICIID) is the latest step in what Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal called his country's "long march" towards cautious reform at home and improved relations with faith around the world.
"Religion has been the basis for many conflicts," he said.
Spurred into action by the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States - in which most of the militants involved were Saudi nationals - and radical Islamist bombings in Saudi Arabia two years later, the king has brought together Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims in Mecca to discuss how to counter extremism in Islam.
He hosted an interfaith conference in 2008 but had to hold it in Madrid because the kingdom is so conservative. However, Saudi officials at the Vienna conference stressed the dialogue message was being spread back home as well.
"The aim is to promote acceptance of other cultures, moderation and tolerance," said Fahad Sultan AlSultan, deputy head of a Saudi national dialogue effort launched in 2003. "There are problems but we have achieved some success."
KAICIID is managed by a board with three Muslims, three Christians, a Jew, a Buddhist and a Hindu. It aims to help religions contribute to solving problems such as conflicts, prejudice and health crises rather than be misused to worsen them.
"The prime purpose is to empower the active work of those in the field, whether in the field of dialogue, of social activism or of conflict resolution," said Jerusalem-based Rabbi David Rosen, representing Judaism on the nine-seat board of directors.
"WE ARE BEING WATCHED"
Unlike other interfaith projects run by churches or non-governmental organizations, KAICIID is an international body sponsored by Saudi Arabia, Austria and Spain, with strong backing from the Vatican as a "founding observer".
Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, the Vatican's top dialogue official, warned his partners they faced a huge challenge.
"We are being watched," he said. Public opinion expected the centre to be a forum for dialogue on "religious freedom in all its respects, for everybody, for every community, everywhere."
Tauran, who has in the past urged Saudi Arabia to allow Christians to open churches there, said the Roman Catholic Church was among those focusing on religious rights.
"The Holy See is particularly attentive to the fate of Christian communities in countries where such a freedom is not adequately guaranteed," he said.
Abdullah al-Turki, head of the World Muslim League that has spread Saudi Arabia's strict Wahhabi school of Islam around the world for decades, used the opening ceremony to revive an issue other Muslim groups had quietly abandoned as unattainable.
"We hope this centre will support the international effort to issue an international law criminalizing the abuse of religions and God's prophets," he said.
The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) admitted in September it could not win United Nations support to outlaw blasphemy despite years of effort and said it would no longer try. Western states oppose a ban as a violation of free speech.
Austrian Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger defended the establishment of KAICIID in Vienna, saying "it is my deep conviction that there is no alternative to this dialogue".
But the centre's Austrian critics kept up a drum beat of criticism. A group called Liberal Muslims held a small protest outside the Hofburg against Saudi human rights violations.
The Green Party said Austria was naive to think Saudi Arabia, which has financed many mosques espousing the austere Wahhabi form of Islam in Europe, had no ulterior motives in paying for the centre's headquarters and first 3 years' budget.
KAICIID officials say the centre is independent and would not be promoting any one religion.
(Additional reporting by Georgina Prodhan)