A US church official says Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has said he does not deny the Holocaust occurred but he told a visiting Christian delegation "that its disastrous effects are exaggerated to provide legitimacy for the state of Israel".
"Why should Palestinians suffer for the anti-Semitism of Europeans?" Ahmadinejad told the delegation at a meeting on 24 February, Shanta Premawardhana, the associate general secretary for interfaith relations of the US National Council of Churches has said.
The US religious leaders had reported on their 26 February return that Ahmadinejad said he favours talks with the administration of President George W. Bush if the US government shows willingness to meet with Iranian leaders. Ahmadinejad also told the US religious leaders said the Iranian government had no intention to acquire or use nuclear weapons.
Premawardhana stressed that while the dialogue with Ahmadinejad was the most visible meeting the delegation had, "the meetings with religious leaders were, in the long run, far more significant".
Nonetheless, Premawardhana’s described a tense discussion with Ahmadinejad over the Holocaust with the Iranian leader "clearly annoyed" over questions about statements he had made over the Holocaust.
Premawardhana writes that he told the Iranian president "his views, rhetoric and actions at the very least, undercut our attempts to build relationships between the people of the United States and Iran".
Saying he had answered the question over the Holocaust at a previous meeting with US religious leaders in New York last year, Ahmadinejad said: "Why do you want to ask this again?" The Iranian president told the delegation: "Let me ask you a question …. What is it with Zionists and America? Anytime anyone says anything against the Zionists, it creates problems in the US. Are Zionists ruling America? I refuse to believe that Zionists have so much power that you have to ask this again. Perhaps this is due to the sensationalising efforts of the media."
As for a Holocaust conference that was held in Tehran in 2006 which evoked widespread criticism, Premawardhana said the president asked the delegation "why the event should not be studied, giving a place to all opinions". Ahmadinejad added: "Why do you permit questions on the very existence of God, but not about the existence of the Holocaust?"
As for meetings with the Iranian religious leaders, Premawardhana said he felt the dialogue between the US and Iranians helped bridge a gap over vastly "competing narratives" about the history of US-Iranian relations.
Meetings included discussions with Muslim Ayatollahs and Christian clergy, including Armenian Orthodox Archbishop Sebouh Sarkissian.
"Despite media depictions to the contrary, we found the Ayatollahs we met to be learned and wise men who enjoy significant public support, legitimacy and authority," Premawardhana said. "As religious leaders, we found in them colleagues with whom we could engage in the task of finding common ground."
The US delegation included representatives of Baptist, Episcopal (Anglican), Evangelical Christian, Mennonite, Quaker, Roman Catholic and United Methodist traditions.
(c) Ecumenical News International
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