BY ED WEST
THE HOLY SEE faced criticism this week for attending a United Nations racism conference largely seen as an attack on Israel.
The second World Conference Against Racism took place in Geneva eight years after an antiracism conference in Durban, South Africa, degenerated into a series of angry denunciations of Israel.
Eight countries boycotted the event, including the United States, Germany and Israel, and almost every other European country walked out on the first day after Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made a speech calling Israel "a totally racist government". But the Vatican delegation, led by Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, decided to stay.
Later on Monday Vatican spokesman. Jesuit Fr Federico Lombardi, told Vatican Radio that "statements like those of the Iranian president do not go in the right direction, because even if he did not deny the Holocaust or the right of Israel to exist, he expressed extremist and unacceptable positions".
The following day Fr Lombardi said in a statement: 'The Holy See deplores the use of this United Nations forum for the adoption of political positions of an extremist and offensive nature against any state. This does not contribute to dialogue and it provokes an unacceptable atmosphere of conflict."
However, the Vatican's attendance threatened to strain JewishCatholic relations a month before the Pope was due to visit Israel.
Rome's chief rabbi, Riccardo Di Segni, said: "By participating, the Vatican has given its endorsement to what is being prepared there 'against Israel]."
Shimon Samuels, head of the European office of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, said the Vatican was "giving a seal of approval in the hate campaign" against Israel.
Sir Sigmund Sternberg, the Jewish philanthropist who helped to negotiate the Holy See's recognition of Israel, said he had asked the Papal Nuncio of Great Britain to explain the reasons for the Vatican's support of the conference and was awaiting a reply.
On Sunday Pope Benedict said the conference was needed to combat racial intolerance around the world. He said it would help "put an end to every form of racism, discrimination and intolerance".
Vatican spokesman Fr Federico Lombardi defended the Holy See's presence and said a disputed conference text, seen as anti-Israeli, had been improved in recent weeks.
"This is an international conference promoted by the United Nations and the Holy See. Just because some important countries are not attending does not mean that the Holy See cannot have a positive and constructive dialogue there," he said.
The Pope, speaking after the Regina Caeli on Sunday, said the conference was important because, despite the lessons of history, racist attitudes and actions were still present. He encouraged participants to take "firm and concrete action, at the national and international levels, to prevent and eliminate every form of racism and intolerance".
"For its part, the Church teaches C'ontinued on Page 2
Holocaust group `disappointed' by Vatican decision
BY ED WEST
Continued from Page 1: that only recognition of the dignity of man, created in the image and likeness of God, is able to constitute a sure reference point in this commitment," he said. "I sincerely encourage all delegates present at the Geneva conference to work together in a spirit of mutual dialogue and acceptance to put an end to every form of racism, discrimination and intolerance," he said. The first World Conference Against Racism was held in Durban in 2001. Israel and America withdrew after complaining that the conference was a pretext for anti-Semitism. In the lead-up to the recent conference several Islamic governments also proposed banning all criticism of Islam, Sharia law and Mohammed.
The text under consideration in Geneva has been revised in recent months, and recent drafts have not included references to Israel. Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, one of the speakers at this week's events, has repeatedly called for the destruction of Israel and has called the Holocaust a hoax.
The American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants expressed its "deep disappointment" at the Vatican decision. The group's vice president, Elan Steinberg, said: "Because the conference highlights the participation of Iran's notorious Holocaust-denier Alunadinejad there was a particular obligation for the Vatican to have stayed away." Riccardo Di Segni, the Rome rabbi, said the Pope's decision was "the latest imprudent step" in his relations with Jews, which were severely strained earlier this year over the Pope's decision to lift the excommunication of a bishop who denied the Holocaust. The rabbi said that by attending, the Vatican was "partially nullifying" the effect of the boycott by other nations. Navi Pillay, the UN high commissioner for human rights, said the boycott undercut the global effort to fight racism.
Rabbi Jonathan Romain of Maidenhead, Berkshire, said the Vatican's decision to attend the conference should not spoil the Pope's trip to Israel.
"I felt it was enormously sad that a conference that was supposed to oppose racism and stereotypes got mired down," he said. "It was a mistake to invite Ahmadinejad, who was always going to use it as a soapbox. "At the end of the day it's great the Pope is going to Israel. He will be welcomed both personally and in his institution. It's a very promising visit and no one should allow it to be poisoned."