OSWIECIM, Poland – In a bid to fight anti-Semitism and bridge cultural rifts, a large delegation of Muslim dignitaries visited Auschwitz on Tuesday to pay tribute to the millions of Jews and others who were systematically killed in the Holocaust.
The group of some 150 people included representatives from Morocco, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq, as well as rabbis, Holocaust survivors and Christian representatives. Several European dignitaries also were part of the group, including the former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.
"Muslims have to stand up with Jewish friends because in Europe, anti-Semitism is rising — and where there is anti-Semitism, Islamophobia is not far away," said British Mufti Abduljalil Sajid.
Sajid said he knew of the Holocaust from books and movies but that it was his first visit to Auschwitz. "I wanted to see it with my own eyes — and teach others about the evil of hate," he said. "This should never happen again, to anybody."
Israel Meir Lau, a former chief rabbi of Israel and himself a Holocaust survivor, said he was happy that such a large number of Muslim leaders were seeking to deepen their understanding of the Holocaust.
The vice president of the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants, Elan Steinberg, called the visit "unprecedented."
"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," Steinberg said. "This delegation will spread the message of mutual tolerance and understanding as the antidote to hate and disrespect. It is a welcome benefit to both Muslim and Jew."
The trip was organized by UNESCO, the educational and cultural arm of the United Nations, as well as Paris City Hall and a new anti-racism group called the Aladdin Project. It comes at a time when some in the West voice unease over Islam's growing clout in the underbelly of their communities and with Holocaust denials by political leaders such as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
It also comes amid the recent upheaval that toppled a regime in Tunisia and which is threatening the regime of Egypt's longtime president, Hosni Mubarak, with whom Israel has painstakingly built strong ties.
Anne-Marie Revcolevschi, head of the Aladdin Project, said it was important to have the Muslim representatives on hand.
"The reason is clear," she said. "Because it's primarily from some of these countries where the speeches and documents that trade in Holocaust denial, hatred and anti-Semitism come from."
She noted the participation of Karim Lahidji, the head of the Iranian League of Human Rights and a former top lawyer in Tehran, saying: "No one will miss out on how his presence is important."
The Paris-based Aladdin Project was created two years ago to raise awareness about the Holocaust and to fight racism, Islamophobia and intolerance. Its website offers primers about Judaism for non-Jews and about Islam for non-Muslims, and highlights the historic ties between their communities.
Envoys from Egypt, Tunisia, Iran and Algeria had to cancel for various reasons, including the current political upheaval in the Mideast.
The visit comes after Thursday's commemoration of the 66th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, Nazi Germany's most notorious death camp built in occupied Poland where 1.1 million Jews, Gypsies and others were murdered.
The Aladdin Project: www.projetaladin.org