By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 21, 2006
Local Muslim leaders lit candles yesterday at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum to commemorate Jewish suffering under the Nazis, in a ceremony held just days after Iran had a conference denying the genocide.
American Muslims "believe we have to learn the lessons of history and commit ourselves: Never again," said Imam Mohamed Magid of the All Dulles Area Muslim Society, standing before the eternal flame flickering from a black marble base that holds dirt from Nazi concentration camps.
Around the hexagonal room, candles glimmered under the engraved names of the death camps: Chelmno. Auschwitz-Birkenau. Majdanek.
"We stand here with three survivors of the Holocaust and my great Muslim friends to condemn this outrage in Iran," said Sara J. Bloomfield, the museum's director, addressing a bank of TV cameras in the room, known as the Hall of Remembrance.
The museum, she noted, holds "millions of pieces of evidence of this crime."
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad organized last week's conference after Western countries protested his comment last year that the slaughter of 6 million Jews was a myth. The two-day meeting drew historical revisionists and such people as David Duke, a former leader of the Ku Klux Klan.
Major American Muslim and Arab-American organizations have condemned the Iran conference. The Muslim speakers at yesterday's ceremony did not mention that event but called for recognition of the suffering Jews experienced in the Holocaust and condemned religious hatred. Asked afterward why they did not single out Iran, the Muslim leaders said the problem was broader than the recent conference.
"The issue here is: There might be somebody from X and Y country, a Muslim, saying the same thing," Magid said. If anyone wants to make Holocaust denial an Islamic cause, he said, "we want to say to them: You cannot use our name."
Museum officials said a Muslim delegation had never before made such a public statement at the memorial building.
After the speeches yesterday, Bloomfield invited the visitors to light candles to remember the Holocaust victims and Muslims who rescued some of the besieged Jews. One by one, the guests silently shuffled along the wallside bank of candles: the tall imam in his round Muslim cap, known as a kufi; a woman in a Muslim head scarf; Muslim men in business suits; and three elderly women in pantsuits from the D.C. suburbs, survivors of the genocide.
One of them, Johanna Neumann, recounted at the ceremony how Muslims saved her Jewish family. Members of her family had fled from Germany to Albania, where Muslim families sheltered them and hid their identity during the Nazi occupation.
"Everybody knew who we were. Nobody would even have thought of denouncing us" to the Nazis, said the tiny 76-year-old Silver Spring resident. "These people deserve every respect anybody can give them."
The idea for the ceremony originated with Magid, whose Sterling mosque has been active in interfaith efforts. After hearing radio reports about the Iranian meeting, "I said to myself, 'We have to, as Muslim leaders . . . show solidarity with our fellow Jewish Americans,' " Magid recalled after the speeches.
He contacted Akbar Ahmed, an American University professor active in inter-religious dialogue, who asked the museum to hold the ceremony.
"It's important that the world knows there are Muslims who don't believe in this [Holocaust denial]," Ahmed said after the ceremony. Also in the delegation were representatives of the Council on American-Islamic Relations and the Muslim Public Affairs Council.
Bloomfield, the museum director, noted that Magid delayed his trip to Mecca for the annual hajj pilgrimage by a day to attend the ceremony.
"That's a pretty strong statement," she said.
The Holocaust victims expressed gratitude for the gesture by the Muslims.
"We could live together in peace if only more of these things were happening," said Halina Peabody, 74, a native of Poland who lives in Bethesda.