NEW YORK (Reuters) -- Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad had dinner with around 200 people of various faiths including Mennonites, Jews, and Zoroastrians who said they wanted to promote peace by meeting such a prominent foe of the United States.
Outside the Manhattan hotel near the United Nations where the dinner took place, protesters held up placards such as "No feast with the beast" and likening Ahmadinejad to Hitler.
On September 23, the Iranian leader railed against "Zionist murderers" in a speech at the UN General Assembly, dwelling on what he described as Zionist control of international finance, echoing the libel that blamed a world Jewish conspiracy for all the world's troubles.
Ahmadinejad rejected accusations he was anti-Semitic, saying his criticism was aimed at the "Zionist regime" for its oppression of the Palestinians rather than at Jews.
"As soon as anyone objects to the behavior of the Zionist regime, they're accused of being anti-Semitic, whereas the Jewish people are not Zionists," Ahmadinejad said. "Zionism is a political party that has nothing to do with Jewish people."
The Iranian leader gave a lengthy discourse on the need for religion in both private and public life, and the decline of morality in countries where politicians reject religion.'Very Challenging'
He also dwelled on the woes of the Palestinians and efforts by "selfish powers" to dominate the world and frustrate Iran's peaceful nuclear ambitions at the event billed as a discussion on religion's role in eliminating poverty, injustice and war.
"A lot of it was very challenging," said Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb who was also a speaker. She said that while Ahmadinejad had not denied the Holocaust in his speech, he had minimized it in the way he spoke about World War II.
Ahmadinejad has said Israel should be erased from the map. His government held a conference in 2006 questioning the fact that Nazis used gas chambers to kill 6 million Jews in World War II.
"Our world views are rather different. But unless we ... dialogue face to face, how will we create any kind of understanding?" Gottlieb told Reuters, adding that she chose to attend because "peace is better than war."
Arli Klassen, executive director of the Mennonite Central Committee, introduced the discussion by saying armed conflict would solve nothing and dialogue was essential, especially with those whose views were most different.
"We are deeply concerned when your statements about the Holocaust minimize or diminish its impact on our world today, and on Jewish people today," she told Ahmadinejad. "We ask you to change the way you speak about the Holocaust."
She asked him to avoid rhetoric that "is heard as a threat to destroy the state of Israel," to allow religious freedom in Iran, and to be transparent about Iran's nuclear program.
Harriett Jane Olson, a representative of the United Methodist Church, said she wished Ahmadinejad had talked about practical issues such as the treatment of women and children in Iran rather than focusing on abstract theological points.
Rohinton Dadina, a Zoroastrian priest who said a prayer at the dinner, said if Ahmadinejad's views were changed even 1 percent by what he heard, it was worth holding such events.