Iran Hosts Holocaust Deniers at Tehran Conference

Participants from around the world are meeting in Iran to discuss whether the Holocaust took place. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who in the past has called the Holocaust a "myth," initiated the conference.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

Iran's president has famously insisted that the Holocaust is a myth. That notion was the inspiration for a conference in Tehran called Review of the Holocaust. For two days, Holocaust deniers from dozens of countries have been gathered there, including former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke. Manouchehr Mohammadi is the deputy foreign minister of Iran and organizer of the conference.

Mr. MANOUCHEHR MOHAMMADI (Deputy Foreign Minister, Iran): We are neither denying nor confirming the reality of the Holocaust. But we want to provide opportunity for everybody to understand what are the justifications and documents they claim with regard to the issue of Holocaust.

MONTAGNE: That's the foreign minister of Iran. Israel has weighed in on the conference. Its prime minister called the event, quote, “a sick phenomenon.”

NPR's Mike Shuster is at the conference site in Tehran. Good morning.

MIKE SHUSTER: Morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Who exactly came to Tehran for this conference?

SHUSTER: Well, there are several dozen of these Holocaust deniers, and actually they've come from all over the world - from the Middle East, from Asia, from the United States and from Europe. You mentioned David Duke - he's been spending a lot of time in Russia and Ukraine and has written a book that is widely considered to be anti-Semitic. Another man named Robert Faurisson is from France, he has written that there were no gas chambers in the death camps. He's called the diary of Anne Frank a literary fraud. But perhaps most unusual of all, a small group of anti-Zionist, ultra-Orthodox Jews from New York and Europe - they're part of a Hasidic group that is known as the Satmars - and they don't believe in establishing a Jewish nation on earth, so they are against the state of Israel and they are participating as well.

MONTAGNE: Well, are they defending though, the reality of the Holocaust?

SHUSTER: Actually, the ultra-Orthodox Hasidic Jews that were here, to some degree acknowledge that the Holocaust occurred, but they were mainly interested in pressing their issue, which was an anti-Zionist, anti-Israel position. As you know, the Iranian government has said the conference wasn't meant to prove nor deny the Holocaust, but at the same time they didn't invite historians here who have written about the death camps and the gas chambers and how Auschwitz and the other camps operated. And most important of all, they invited no Holocaust survivors to come and tell the conference about the experiences that they actually lived through during World War II.

MONTAGNE: You know, you wonder, why did Iran call this conference?

SHUSTER: Well, Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, has been making an issue of this for more than a year, claiming in many speeches that the Holocaust has been a myth, as you said, or exaggerated. But the Iranian president and the Iranian government generally has used this to challenge the legitimacy of the state of Israel and to turn Iran into the world's strongest supporter for the Palestinian cause. By the way, the Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, who comes from Hamas, was just here. He had a four-day visit and said during Friday prayers, last Friday, that Hamas will not recognize the government of Israel. So you can see the political uses that the president and the Iranian government are putting this issue to use.

MONTAGNE: There are also reports of a student protest against President Ahmedinejad yesterday. Tell us a little about that.

SHUSTER: Well as far as I understand it, there were several dozen student protestors that confronted the president at Amirkabir University, which is in Tehran. They heckled him and burned his pictures. They chanted: down with dictatorship, and we want freedom. Ahmedinejad engaged them - he called them puppets of the United States. But at the same time, the students were handled carefully. There weren't arrests. The government didn't seem to want to impose strong police action on the demonstrators, particularly when they were defending the freedom of expression at the Holocaust conference the same day.

MONTAGNE: Mike, thanks very much.

SHUSTER: You're welcome, Renee.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Mike Shuster in Tehran.

Germany has taken steps to make sure people don't forget the Holocaust. It held a rival conference on Holocaust history and remembrance. And you can hear more about that at NPR.org.

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