Backed by Saudi Arabia, the King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz 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 center.
The KAICIID was set up jointly by Saudi Arabia, Spain and Austria, with the Vatican acting as “founding observer.”
But critics have questioned the center’s ability to promote interreligious dialogue, since it was an initiative of the Saudi king and will be entirely funded by Saudi Arabia for the first three years.
They argue that Riyadh will use the center to divert attention from human rights violations and the lack of religious freedom at home.
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.
The attacks of September 11, 2001 “showed the world that religious leaders and religious ideas have enough power and passion to build or destroy the world, to bring peace or war,” the Chief Rabbi of Moscow Pinchas Goldschmidt said.
In light of this, he said he wanted to support an initiative that came “from the very center of the Islamic world.”
A veiled warning to Saudi Arabia came however from Jean-Louis Tauran, president of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue.
“This center presents another opportunity for open dialogue on many issues including those related to fundamental human rights, in particular religious freedom. In all its aspects, for everybody, for every community, everywhere,” he insisted.
“We are being watched. Everyone is expecting from the initiative... honesty, vision and credibility,” he went on.
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.