World reacts with outrage over meeting of Holocaust deniers in Iran

VIENNA, Austria (CP) – 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 six million Jews.

The European Union’s top justice official, Franco Frattini, condemned the conference as “an unacceptable affront” to victims of the Second World War genocide. British Prime Minister Tony Blair denounced it as “shocking beyond belief” and proof of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s extremism.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper joined the chorus of world leaders condemning the conference.

“On behalf of the government of Canada, I want to condemn, in the strongest terms, this latest example of anti-Israeli and racist statements from the president of Iran,” Harper said in a statement.

Harper added the conference is an offence to all Canadians.

“I think it is such a symbol of sectarianism and hatred toward people of another religion. I find it just unbelievable, really,” Blair said in London.

“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, an ex-Klan leader and former Louisiana state representative, was among those at 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 Nazi Holocaust.

In Washington, the White House condemned Iran for convening the conference.

“The gathering of Holocaust deniers in Tehran is an affront to the entire civilized world, as well as to the traditional Iranian values of tolerance and mutual respect,” White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said.

“The United States will continue to support those in Iran and elsewhere who seek to promote human rights and dignity, and will stand with them in their efforts to overcome oppression, injustice and tyranny.”

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 reporters. 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 legislators 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 that 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 Lipstadt, a professor of Holocaust studies at Emory University in Atlanta, drew a sharp distinction between the conference and this year’s publication of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, which sparked 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.”

But Soeren Espersen of the Danish People’s Party, which staunchly defended the Muhammad cartoons, said people should have the right to speak their minds – even at a “hideous” conference like the one in Tehran.

“We believe in freedom of speech also for nut cases,” he said.

In Vienna, where 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 one million. Gerhard Jarosch of the Vienna public prosecutor’s office said officials were trying to verify Friedman’s remarks.

Frantisek Banyai, head of Prague’s Jewish community – which was decimated during the Second World War 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.”

Frattini, the EU justice and home affairs commissioner, 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 Holocaust, Frattini said. “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.