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Israel compares Iran with Nazi Germany as racism conference limps on

Speaking at a Holocaust remembrance ceremony in Auschwitz, Israel's deputy prime minister likened Iran to the Third Reich. His remarks came a day after Iran labeled Israel "a racist regime" at a UN conference in Geneva.

Empty seats the UN Racism conference at the United Nations headquarter in Geneva, Switzerland

Many Western countries, including Germany, are boycotting the conference

Israel's deputy prime minister Silvan Shalom did not mince words in his reaction to comments made by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Switzerland on Monday.

Shalom told reporters before a ceremony at the site of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in what is now Poland, "What Iran is trying to do right now is not far away at all from what Hitler did to the Jewish people just 65 years ago."

Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel said the UN had been wrong to give the Iranian President a forum. Speaking on the margins of the Geneva conference, the writer questioned why Iran was invited to the UN. "Why he was allowed to say what he said, why wasn't he stopped by the chairman... is beyond me."

The UN has said that Ahmadinejad had omitted a passage that questioned the historical validity of the Holocaust form his speach. The UN did admit howeer, that the president's statement, that Israel was a "totally racist government in occupied Palestine" had thrown a cloud over the rest of the conference.

Protest or dialogue

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navanethem Navi Pillay

Pillay said the discussions must continue

Dozens of Western diplomats walked out the auditorium after hearing Ahmadinejad's speech on Monday, leaving the UN to plead with participants to continue to attend the five-day event.

"The best response to this type of event is to reply, to correct, and not to walk away, not to withdraw and boycott the conference," UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said. "If that happens, who is going to provide a rational response to what had been said?"

The conference also reportedly agreed the wording of a final declaration, which Pillay said was the meeting's "answer" to Ahmadinejad.

Spokespeople from some Muslim countries said dialogue had to take precedence over symbolic acts of protest. "We cannot allow for differences of opinion to paralyse our efforts to achieve a world free of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, foreign occupation or intolerance," Syrian delegation leader Faysal Mekdad said.

Iran has reacted angrily to a statement by UN Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon, who said on Monday that he "deplored" Ahmadinejad's comments. "The remarks of the UN chief were not neutral," Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Hassan Ghashghavi told reporters.

Vatican sitting on the fence

Protestors carry a banner reading 'fight racism'

UN members have spent much of the conference fighting with each other

The Vatican, which also has representatives in Geneva, appeared to take see both sides of the issue.

Archbishop Silvano Romasi, the Catholic Church's permanent observer at the UN's headquarters in Geneva, said in an interview with Radio Vatican that radical opinions were part of any discussion.

But in an official statement the Vatican also said that extremist and insulting positions against particular states did nothing to encourage dialogue.

Zionism is "racism"?

The controversy has pit the Muslim world and the United Nations against Europe, the US and Israel over the question of whether Zionism should be seen as a form of racism.

Although 22 of the EU's 27 member states have since returned to the conference, the Czech Republic, which holds the bloc's rotating presidency, has pulled out for the rest of the week.

The US and Israel -- together with Germany, Poland, Italy and the Netherlands -- refused to attend the conference in advance, citing fears that the conference would legitimize anti-Semitic viewpoints.

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