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President Barack Obama speaks at the 69th Session of the United Nations General Assembly at United Nations Headquarters on September 24, 2014 in New York City.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The future of human civilization depends on eliminating the scourge of violent, divisive extremism, U.S. President Barack Obama said Wednesday in a powerful plea to the United Nations General Assembly for collective action.

"It is no exaggeration to say that humanity's future depends on us uniting against those who would divide us along fault lines of tribe or sect; race or religion," the president said.

(Who are Islamic State? Get caught up with The Globe's primer)

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He particularly denounced the Islamic State, whose black-clad jihadists have carved out a proto-caliphate across much of eastern Syria and western Iraq as an evil that must be eradicated.

Islamic State and other violent Muslim extremists pose a new and more "lethal and ideological brand of terrorists who have perverted one of the world's great religions," Mr. Obama said, barely a day after U.S. warplanes escalated a new and borderless war bombing the nascent caliphate.

The president, who also denounced Moscow for resorting to big-power bullying tactics and called on nations to stop ignoring the plight of millions facing Ebola, saved his loudest call for action in a concerted, global effort to stamp out violent extremism.

"We reject any suggestion of a clash of civilizations," he said, but added the world must confront the stark reality that proxy wars and sectarian strife threaten to unravel great strides of human progress.

In a world racked by multiple simultaneous crises – conflict in Ukraine, Ebola raging in West Africa, the Middle East aflame and refugees fleeing in hundreds of thousands, the greatest exodus since the Second World War – President Obama urged leaders, especially in the Middle East, to seek peaceful outcomes..

"It is time to acknowledge the destruction wrought by proxy wars and terror campaigns between Sunni and Shia across the Middle East," he said, adding: "It is time that political, civic and religious leaders reject sectarian strife."

But the president's often grim and gloomy speech wasn't all negative.

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"Today, whether you live in downtown New York or in my grandmother's village more than two hundred miles from Nairobi, you can hold in your hand more information than the world's greatest libraries," he said.

"I often tell young people in the United States that this is the best time in human history to be born, for you are more likely than ever before to be literate, to be healthy, and to be free to pursue your dreams."

The president's speech followed a sombre opening address by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon who urged renewed hope despite a planet beset by crisis "But leadership is precisely about finding the seeds of hope and nurturing them into something bigger," he told heads of state and government from the UN's 193-member states gathered for the annual General Assembly meetings.

The U.S. president told leaders that they were gathered at "a crossroads between war and peace; between disorder and integration; between fear and hope."

He promised the United States would play its part to lead, even as he acknowledged the world's sole remaining superpower made its share of mistakes at home and abroad.

He reflected on the killing, in a small Missouri town, of a young, unarmed African American by a white police officer which sparked weeks of racially charged and sometimes violent confrontations and drew global attention.

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"America has plenty of problems within our own borders," Mr. Obama said. "So yes, we have our own racial and ethnic tensions. And like every country, we continually wrestle with how to reconcile the vast changes wrought by globalization and greater diversity with the traditions that we hold dear."

The president laid out a daunting array of problems. "As we gather here, an outbreak of Ebola overwhelms public health systems in West Africa, and threatens to move rapidly across borders. Russian aggression in Europe recalls the days when large nations trampled small ones in pursuit of territorial ambition. The brutality of terrorists in Syria and Iraq forces us to look into the heart of darkness," he said.

But one global threat is greater than all the rest, he said in a speech on Tuesday.

"For all the immediate challenges that we gather to address this week – terrorism, instability, inequality, disease – there's one issue that will define the contours of this century more dramatically than any other, and that is the urgent and growing threat of a changing climate," Mr. Obama said.

He turned again to the threat posed by greenhouse gas emissions in his General Assembly speech, suggesting that U.S. efforts must be matched by other major polluters.

"We can only succeed in combatting climate change if we are joined in this effort by every major power," the president said. "That's how we can protect this planet for our children and grandchildren."

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