OSWIECIM, Poland (Reuters) - Prominent Muslims joined Jews and Christians at the former Nazi death camp of Auschwitz on Tuesday in a gesture of interfaith solidarity designed to refute deniers of the Holocaust such as Iran’s president.
About 200 dignitaries from across the Islamic world, from Israel, European countries and international organizations such as UNESCO took part in the visit, which included a tour of the site and prayers in Arabic, Yiddish, English and French.
“We must teach our young people in mosques, churches and synagogues about what happened here,” Bosnia’s Grand Mufti Mustafa Ceric told Reuters.
“This awful place should stand as a reminder to all people that intolerance and lack of understanding between people can result in... such places as Auschwitz.”
Some 1.5 million people, mostly Jews, perished at Auschwitz, located near the Polish village of Oswiecim, during the Nazi German occupation of Poland in World War Two.
Organizers said Tuesday’s visit was mainly aimed at rejecting the view, most forcefully championed by Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad but not uncommon in other parts of the Muslim world, that the Holocaust never really happened.
“We chose to give priority to representatives of the Arab and Muslim world and the reason for this is clear,” said Anne-Marie Revcolevschi of the Aladdin Project which works to build ties between Jews and Muslims.
“It is mainly from some of these countries that the speeches and documents come that serve as a vehicle for denial (of the Holocaust), hatred and anti-Semitism,” she said, in comments delivered ahead of the visit to Auschwitz.
“There also exists in these countries currents and people who do not support these outbursts of hatred. We think the time has come to gather them and to let their voices be heard.”
“GREATEST CEMETERY OF MANKIND”
The chief rabbi of Tel Aviv, Israel Meir Lau, echoed that comment, saying: “When a spiritual leader of the Islamic world, comes here to see with his eyes and to know and to feel the atmosphere here, of this greatest cemetery of mankind in history, this will help to deny those who deny the Holocaust.”
Egyptian members of the delegation were unable to attend Tuesday’s commemoration because of the political turmoil sweeping their country, the organizers said. Some guests from Tunisia, Algeria and elsewhere were also unable to attend.
Jewish groups applauded Tuesday’s visit.
“Holocaust survivors welcome this extraordinary visit as a major blow against the scourge of Holocaust denial and as an act of encouragement to the strengthening of interfaith relations,” Elan Steinberg, vice-president of the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants, said in a statement.
“It is the proper response to the obscene statements questioning the Holocaust by Iran’s President Ahmadinejad.”
In sub-zero temperatures the visitors observed a minute of silence at a monument to the victims, laid wreaths and lit candles before being given a guided tour of the Auschwitz-Birkenau site, now a museum, by camp survivors.
Other visitors included former German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, Muslim and other scholars and the mayors of Paris and of many cities in the Islamic world.
“Our joint prayers have brought our religions closer together... This is the way to reconciliation,” said Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz of Poland’s Roman Catholic Church.
“But reconciliation does not mean forgetting or underestimating those times because we must remember those who perished and those who survived this hell to become witnesses still 66 years after the liberation (of Auschwitz).”
Writing by Gareth Jones, editing by Paul Taylor