An international cast of established Holocaust deniers and implacable foes of Israel were given an open forum by Iran yesterday to support Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's contention that the murder of six million Jews by the Nazis was a "myth". The foreign ministry opened a two-day conference, Review of the Holocaust: Global Vision - which senior officials portrayed as scientific scholarship but which Ehud Olmert, Israel's prime minister, denounced as a "sick phenomenon". Visiting Berlin, Mr Olmert urged Germany to sever diplomatic ties with Iran.
Iran's foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, insisted the event was necessary to counter an alleged lack of free speech in the west about the Holocaust, which Iranian officials argue is used to justify Israel's oppression of the Palestinians.
"Today people who claim to be against Nazism have a record of colonialism and racism," he said. "The objective for organising this conference is to create an atmosphere to raise various opinions about a historical issue. We are not seeking to deny or prove the Holocaust."
But pretensions to scholastic objectivity were undermined by the background of some among the 67 foreign visitors from 30 countries, including Britain. They included David Duke, a former imperial wizard of the Ku Klux Klan; Robert Faurisson, a French lecturer stripped of his academic tenure for his anti-Holocaust opinions; and Michele Renouf, a London-based associate of the British author David Irving. Irving is currently serving a jail sentence for Holocaust denial in Austria.
A group of radical anti-Zionist rabbis, Jews United Against Israel, who oppose a Jewish state on religious grounds, were given a prominent role. Among them was Rabbi Ahron Cohen, a retired former lecturer at the Jewish religious college in Hitchin, Hertfordshire. Rabbi Cohen acknowledged that the Holocaust had happened but said he saw nothing anti-semitic in Mr Ahmadinejad's comments.
However, exhibitions on the conference's fringes conveyed a different message. A series of posters carried the words "myth" and "truth" juxtaposed. Under "myth" were widely accepted verities of the Holocaust while under the "truth" label were opposing contentions.
One poster, simply headlined "truth", carried photos of Irving and Ernst Zundel, a prominent German neo-Nazi also now in jail. Two of Irving books, Hitler's War and Nuremberg: The Last Battle, were displayed along with several other Holocaust revisionist works. There were no books by orthodox historians on the Nazi era.
A video referred to the "supposed gas chambers" and the "alleged final solution". A series of photos showed British soldiers "forcing" German prisoners to remove corpses from a mass grave. The caption suggested that the British were responsible for the deaths, saying: "The interesting point is that the grave was established in the last days of the war just as the camp was being opened by British soldiers." Another picture, purportedly of Dachau concentration camp, shows a smiling, well-fed group of inmates.
Few visitors were apologetic. Mr Duke praised the event as an exercise in free speech. "It's a shame that Iran, a country we often call oppressive, has to give this opportunity for free speech," he said. "I think Israel is a terrorist state. It is the number one terrorist state in the world."
Ms Renouf said "terrible things" had happened to the Jews during the second world war but claimed their own leaders had brought it upon them. "If people become anti-semitic, it's because they believe the leaders of the Jews and are reacting to the anti-gentile nature of Judaism," she said.
Moshe Ayre Friedman, an Austrian rabbi, argued that the figure of six million Jewish dead had come from a prophecy by Theodore Herzl, founder of modern Zionism, long before the second world war. He said recent research suggested the true figure was about one million. "Politically and historically, the land of Palestine doesn't belong to the Jews and should be returned to Palestinians," he said.
But Moris Motamed, Iran's sole Jewish MP, labelled the gathering a "huge insult".
In Britain, Stephen Smith, chairman of the Holocaust memorial day trust, said the conference contrasted with a high awareness of the Holocaust among young Britons. "Three-quarters of young people know when the Holocaust took place and 84% have heard of Auschwitz. Knowledge is the first step to prevention. Denial is the first step to repetition," he said.