New Zealand provided a model of religious tolerance for the rest of the world, Helen Clark, the former Prime Minister and head of the United Nations Development Programme, said today.

"Our world badly needs such models. On so many days now when I see the news headlines I often think how fortunate we are," she said in Wellington.

"To see societies ripped apart by violent extremists with the extremists claiming so often to act in the name of the faith and yet prepared to violate every single principle of those faiths."

Ms Clark was opening the new Religious Diversity Centre, for which she has agreed to be patron.

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"The world badly needs voices of reason and tolerance and those who will work to build dialogue and respect across faiths and beliefs. I do believe that New Zealand can show the way."

She said the role of faith-based actors had special significance in those parts of the world where governance structures were very weak, and the machinery of the state could not give access to basic services whether they were education, justice, health, security or other services.

She said inclusive development, tolerance, diversity and respect was central to what UNDP did.

It acknowledged the role of the faith actors in local communities, often delivering critical services which would otherwise go undelivered and that enabled the faith leaders to mobilise grassroots support and earn the trust of vulnerable communities.

"They also have the ability to influence very significantly cultural norms and social cohesion.

"What is said at the pulpit on Fridays and Saturdays and Sundays matters a lot to society."

Talking about recent extremist violence - she mentioned Brussels, Paris, Pakistan, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Cote D'Ivoire - she said it was important to address the drivers of extremism.

One senior UN member in Mali had talked to her about the negative options there for youth: becoming jihadists which paid $300 a month; a rebel in the north; a trafficker of people, guns or drugs; or heading to Libya to try to get to Europe.

Speaking to the Herald later she said the whole purpose of terrorist attacks was to make people feel insecure "so in general my response would be 'don't let it stop people doing what they would normally do'".

"Of course, I was horrified at what happened at Brussels airport. I was through it with my husband as recently as December ... "

"What I would ask is that as well as the security response which is important, there is also a focus back on what is driving this, what is the lack of opportunity, the perceived sense of injustice, the ignorance which underlies the formation of the criminal elements which make up these groups."

She was not questioning the military response to Isis (Islamic State), however.

"I think IS will only be taken out of Syria and Iraq through military means."

That would not mean the ended of Isis.

"As we saw when al Qaeda was driven out of Afghanistan, it didn't stop al Qaeda. It morphed into cells around the world. I think we are in for the long haul on this. But there are a broad range of responses that are needed to deal with it."

* The Religious Diversity Centre will conduct research on religious diversity in New Zealand; provide specialist advice to policy-makers and the media; and offer religious diversity training for companies, agencies, unions media and others. The trustees responsible for establishing the centre include Jocelyn Armstrong, multi-faith educator; Kevin Clements, director of the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at Otago University; Jenny Te Paa Daniel, public theologian; and Paul Morris, professor of religious studies at Victoria University.