New Zealand provides a model of religious tolerance for the rest of the world, former Prime Minister Helen Clark said yesterday.

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

Helen Clark - now head of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) - was at Parliament opening the new Religious Diversity Centre, for which she has agreed to be patron.

"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 countries where the state could not provide basic services such as education, justice, health or security.

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

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

Talking about recent 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 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'.

"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."

The Religious Diversity Centre will conduct research into 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.