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Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, left, shakes hands with Rabbi Yisroel Dovid Weiss, a member of Jews United Against Zionism, at a conference on the Holocaust in Tehran. ((Vahid Salemi/Associated Press))

Iran's president, who once described the Holocaust as a "myth," opened a conference Monday meant to question the scale of the Nazi genocide of Jews — and whether it even happened.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad initiated the two-day Holocaust conference in Tehran, insisting its purpose is not to deny the Holocaust, but merely to discuss it in an unrestricted atmosphere.

However, Ahmadinejad has repeatedly expressed anti-Semitic opinions, said he didn't believe in the well-documented genocide of millions of Jews during the Second World Warand has called for the state of Israel to be "wiped off the map." He has also claimed the Holocaust was used to justify the creation of Israel at the cost of Palestinian lands, a view popular among hard-line Iranians.

Ever since Iran announced the conference months ago, it has drawn fierce criticism and disdain from people inIsrael, Canada, the United States, Germany and other countries, including UN Secretary General Kofi Annan.

Ahmadinejad's conference is hosting scholars from 30 countries to discuss how many Jewish people actually died and what it all means for the current state of Palestinians in what he is calling a "test" of free speech. Conference organizers from the Foreign Ministry's Institute for Political and International Studies expected 67 foreign researchers to do presentations.

Among the guests were several Orthodox Jews, one of whom belongs to the group Jews United Against Zionism. Rabbi Yisroel Dovid Weiss has claimed "the Zionists are taking this terrible, horrific tragedy that happened by [to] Jews" in order to "use it for a political end to build … a state, something that is the antithesis, the contradiction to everything that is Godly."

Israel, U.S., Germany condemn conference

French researcher Robert Faurisson, in a speech to conference guests, insisted more evidence of the Holocaust was needed.

"Otherwise, it is no more than a belief," he said.

Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki has characterized the Tehran forum as a gathering of truth-seekers and said the rejection and disapproval towards it was unreasonable.

"I believe the clear and straightforward message of this conference will be received by those who are interested in knowing the truth of the issue," he told the Associated Press from the sidelines of the conference.

Mottaki addedthat anti-Semitism was purely a western phenomenon. "In the Islamic lands, there has never been such phenomenon as anti-Semitism," he said.

Israel and the United States have condemned the conference, as has Germany, where it is illegal to deny the events of the Holocaust. Canadian voices have also joined in disapproval.

At noon in Toronto, the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies was to host a videoconference of survivors speaking to counter Holocaust deniers in Tehran.

Iran has spent months preparing for the conference, even publicizing it in September when UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan visited Tehran.

Annan challenged his hosts, saying the Holocaust was a historical fact and that an exhibition of anti-Holocaust cartoons, then on display in the city, promoted hatred.

With files from the Associated Press