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U.S. Holocaust Museum Calls On Iran To Disavow Cartoon Contest

WASHINGTON -- The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum has called on the Iranian government to disavow a Holocaust cartoon contest that is due to kick off next week.

Iran's foreign minister has denied any affiliation with the event, which begins on May 14 and features prizes ranging from $5,000 to $12,000 for the top three entries.

But the Washington-based museum, which is funded by U.S. government and private donations, has suggested the event has government links, and ought to be canceled or condemned.

The history and circumstances of the Holocaust -- which involved the systematic killing of some 6 million Jews by Nazi Germany -- are not widely known in Iranian society. Iranian school textbooks contain few details about it.

Influential Iranian officials have minimized the killings in the past. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has questioned the Holocaust and referred to it as "an event whose reality is uncertain." And former President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, who was known for frequently making anti-Israeli remarks, regularly questioned the Holocaust and called it "a myth."

Under self-proclaimed moderate President Hassan Rohani, who succeeded Ahmadinejad, Tehran has toned down its anti-Israeli rhetoric and questioning of the Holocaust.

In a 2013 interview with CNN, Rohani said the killings of Jews by the Nazis was "reprehensible and condemnable."

Officials at the Holocaust Museum told reporters on May 11 that the contest organizers, including the House of Cartoon and the Sarcheshmeh Cultural Center both have ties to state entities, including the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and the Culture Ministry.

"The global community and the people of Iran deserve an unequivocal denouncement of this Holocaust cartoon contest," said Tad Stahnke, director of the museum's Initiative on Holocaust Denial and Anti-Semitism.

Masud Shojaei Tabatabae, the contest's administrator who is also the head of the House of Cartoon, said that organizers have been working with the Culture Ministry.

"The foreign minister is aware that we've been working on this for over a year and he's been definitely informed about our activities," he was quoted as saying by Iranian media on April 27.

He added, "We cooperate with the Culture Ministry and officials from the visual section of the ministry have been informed of our activities."

But Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has said that the event is not being supported by the government and that neither he nor Rohani will attend the opening ceremony.

"It's not Iran. It's an NGO that is not controlled by the Iranian government. Nor is it endorsed by the Iranian government," Zarif was quoted as saying in an April 25 interview with The New Yorker magazine.

"The Iranian government does not support, nor does it organize, any cartoon festival of the nature that you're talking about," he added.

Contest organizers have said that they're testing the West's commitment to free speech.

"If freedom of expression knows no boundary, the issue of the Holocaust must also be critically and freely reviewed," the Sarcheshmeh Center said in its announcement of the contest last year.

Stahnke believes the contest and similar events held in Iran are not aimed at promoting freedom of speech.

"These contests are part of an extensive top-down official propaganda effort to deny the Holocaust and undermine the legitimacy of Israel as a state," Stahnke said.

"Holocaust denial and distortion by the Iranian government discredits Iran and its people. It's an affront to survivors and victims, a few of whom were Iranians," he said.

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