VIENNA, Austria – 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 European Union’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 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 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 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 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 conference and this year’s publication of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, which triggered 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.