A gathering of Holocaust deniers in Iran touched off a firestorm of indignation Tuesday across Europe, where many countries have made it a crime to publicly disavow the Nazis’ systematic extermination of 6 million Jews.
The EU’s top justice official condemned the conference as “an unacceptable affront” to victims of the World War II genocide. British Prime Minister Tony Blair denounced it as “shocking beyond belief” and proof of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s extremism.
“I think it is such a symbol of sectarianism and hatred toward people of another religion. I find it just unbelievable, really,” Blair said.
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“I mean to go and invite the former head of the Ku Klux Klan to a conference in Tehran which disputes the millions of people who died in the Holocaust … what further evidence do you need that this regime is extreme?” he added.
David Duke, a former leader of the U.S. white supremacist group, was among those who attended the two-day conference. Although organizers touted it as a scholarly gathering, the meeting angered many in countries such as Austria, Germany and France, where it is illegal to deny aspects of the Nazis’ “Final Solution.”
In Washington, the White House condemned Iran for convening a conference it called “an affront to the entire civilized world.”
The conference drew especially sharp condemnation in Germany, where Chancellor Angela Merkel said her country repudiated it “with all our strength.”
“We absolutely reject this. Germany will never accept this and will act against it with all the means that we have,” Merkel told a news conference. She stood alongside visiting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who denounced the meeting as “unacceptable” and a “danger” to the Western world.
French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy was interrupted by applause from lawmakers when he told parliament in Paris that the conference showed a resurgence of “revisionist” theories “which are quite simply not acceptable.”
The Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center, answering critics who contend revisionists are simply exercising their right to free speech, quoted an unidentified survivor as saying: “If the Holocaust was a myth, where is my sister?”
Deborah E. Lipstadt, a professor of Holocaust studies at Emory University in Atlanta, drew a sharp distinction between the denial conference and this year’s publication of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, which triggered violent protests across the Islamic world.
“It’s one thing to poke fun at a faith — even Judaism. It’s a different thing to lie about history,” she said in a telephone interview. “The question is: When does hate speech become incitement? These people are haters — and haters can cause great damage.”
In Vienna, where right-wing British historian David Irving is serving a three-year sentence for denying the Holocaust and contending there were no gas chambers at the Auschwitz concentration camp, local media reported that Moshe Ayre Friedman — a self-styled rabbi who is not recognized by Austria’s Jewish community — was attending the conference.
The Austria Press Agency said Friedman allegedly maintained that the true Holocaust death toll was closer to 1 million. Gerhard Jarosch of the Vienna public prosecutor’s office said officials were trying to verify Friedman’s remarks and determine whether he could be charged.
Frantisek Banyai, the head of Prague’s Jewish community — which was decimated during WWII from 120,000 people to just a few thousand today — decried the meeting as “aggressive, wrong and disgusting.”
“It’s immoral. It insults me and it insults each member of the Jewish community, because we lost members of our families,” he said. “It’s a slap in the face of those decent people who know the history and want to learn a lesson from it.”
EU Justice and Home Affairs Commissioner Franco Frattini also condemned Ahmadinejad, who considers the Holocaust a “myth” and has called for Israel to be wiped off the map, for hosting the gathering.
“I want to state my firm condemnation of any attempt to deny, trivialize or minimize the Shoah,” Frattini said in a statement. “Anti-Semitism has no place in Europe; nor should it in any other part of the world.”
The Vatican called the Holocaust an “immense tragedy” and warned the world not to react with indifference to those who challenge its existence.
“The memory of those horrible events must remain as a warning for people’s consciences,” the Holy See said.
Francois Nicoullaud, France’s ambassador to Tehran from 2001-2005, saw the conference as another expression of Ahmadinejad’s continuing efforts to get back to the basics of the Islamic revolution.
“He’s trying to scientifically justify the unjustifiable, in a sense,” he said.