Defence minister rebuffs 'anti-Semitic conference'

Rob Nicholson is the second federal politician in a week to distance himself from a conference organized by a fringe religious group accused of anti-Semitism.

Rob Nicholson's staff say he never endorsed fringe Catholic group's symposium

Defence Minister Rob Nicholson's name is all over promotional literature for a conference next month hosted by a fringe Catholic group. His office says he never agreed to lend his name to the event and is not attending. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Another federal politician is moving to distance himself from a conference taking place next month organized by a fringe religious group accused of anti-Semitism.

Defence Minister Rob Nicholson's name appears several times in a brochure, letter and news release for the "Path to Peace" forum being put on in his riding by a southern Ontario group called the Fatima Centre.

His communications director, however, said Wednesday that Nicholson never intended to participate, never agreed to lend his name to the event and will seek to have it removed.

On Monday, CBC News reported that Senator Roméo Dallaire had been booked to speak at the event without realizing who was behind it, and pulled out when his staff were alerted to the background of the Fatima Centre and some of the other conference speakers.

The conference has come under fire from a U.S. non-profit that campaigns against organizations it deems to be hate groups. On its website, the Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center calls the Path to Peace symposium an "anti-Semitic conference" and says the Fatima Centre is "part of the 'radical traditionalist Catholic' movement, perhaps the single largest group of hard-core anti-Semites in North America."

Coralie Graham, a conference convenor and one of the Fatima Centre's directors, said her organization has been the victim of smear campaigns and guilt by association, which have deterred a number of dignitaries from attending.

"Politicians have to be careful with their image. It doesn't matter if it's right or wrong; they don't want to be tarnished with someone else' s brush," she said Wednesday. She added that Nicholson "knows what we're about and who we are, but if he doesn't come for that reason, it's because of the media, of the libels."

Politicians said to be attending

The Fatima Centre had stated in literature for its conference that Nicholson and several legislators from various U.S. states "have already announced that they will attend."

A separate press release said, "We have already received the endorsement of the Minister of Defence for Canada, the Hon. Rob Nicholson."

Senator Roméo Dallaire was booked to speak at the event but pulled out last week once his staff realized who was behind it and who else was participating. (Pawel Dwulit/Canadian Press)

But Nicholson's communications director, Genevieve Breton, said in emails to CBC News that the minister "was never scheduled to attend this event."

"No indication was ever given to the conference organizers that the minister would participate," she said. "The minister never endorsed this conference and we never agreed to have his name referenced in literature," she added. "We will be taking steps to have his name removed."

The Fatima Centre, a dissident Catholic group that believes the Pope has an as-yet unfulfilled duty to consecrate Russia to bring about world peace, ardently denies any anti-Semitism. On one of its websites, it says "hatred of the Jews as a race" is "detestable."

Those same publications also have references, though, to "the duty incumbent upon Catholics of combating valiantly for the integral rights of Christ the King and opposing Jewish Naturalism" and to "Satan's plans against the Church," among which is "the granting of full citizenship to the Jews."

Conspiracy theorists, extremists

Speakers named in the schedule for the conference next month in Niagara Falls include the president of the U.S.-based John Birch Society, a right-wing American group that campaigns against the U.S. Federal Reserve, says the UN is trying to control "all human activity" and claims Nelson Mandela is "carrying forward a communist program of terrorism and genocide."

Others listed in the program are a pair of Italian politicians from radical right-wing movements.

One, Mario Borghezio, belongs to a party striving to preserve Italy's "Christian culture," and said earlier this year that Italy's first black cabinet minister "wants to impose her tribal conditions from the Congo." He later apologized. British and Italian newspapers have reported he was convicted of arson for his role in a 2001 incident where some people set fire to a makeshift camp set up by immigrants living beneath a Turin bridge.

The other, Roberto Fiore, co-founded Italy's extremist Forza Nuova party, which has campaigned for the expulsion of immigrants and has been widely characterized as neo-fascist. The European press has reported he was convicted in 1985 and sentenced to nine years in prison (commuted on appeal to 5½) for his ties to a political faction associated with a fascist militant group.  

The Fatima Centre recently posted a statement online saying that "Mr. Fiore is concerned about the loss of national identity in Italy and other European countries as a result of the influx of immigrants from Islamic nations. There is nothing uncharitable about loving one's heritage and desiring to preserve and protect it." It has since been taken down, and Fiore has pulled out of the conference, Graham said. 

The conference's website and brochures state its keynote speaker is Ron Paul, the former U.S. congressman and three-time candidate for president. Photos of Paul and Senator Dallaire featured in ads for the conference on the internet and on a billboard near the Peace Bridge to the U.S. The Fatima Centre is now rejigging those ads to remove Dallaire.

The Toronto-based Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs said in a statement that it was "concerned by anti-Jewish content" on some websites affiliated with the Fatima Centre and that "it’s important that people of good will — particularly public officeholders — distance themselves from such extremism."