Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini announced Thursday that his country was pulling out of the Durban II United Nations conference on racism due to "aggressive and anti-Semitic statements" in the draft of the event's final document.
The move by Italy was the latest blow to a meeting seen by many Western governments as marred by Muslim attempts to attack Israel and shield Islam from criticism.
Meanwhile, Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini has canceled a planned visit to Iran following pressure from both Jerusalem and Washington. This would have been the first visit to Iran by a European Union foreign minister in nearly four years. Senior Israeli officials asked senior White House officials to become involved and convince the Italians to change their plans.
"This visit could have sent the wrong message to the Iranians," the Israeli officials said. Frattini yesterday informed Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni that the visit had been canceled.
Frattini's comments on Durban II, made on the sidelines of a NATO summit in Brussels, were reported by Italian news agencies. Ministry Spokesman Maurizio Massari confirmed Frattini's statements and said Rome would not participate in the conference unless the document was changed.
"There are expressions of anti-Semitism," Massari said by telephone. "Until the document is modified we will not have a part in it."
The United States has imposed similar conditions. Israel and Canada have already announced a boycott.
Members of Italy's center-left opposition and Jewish groups abroad praised Rome's move.
"We applaud Italy for its principled decision not to participate in a conference that seems determined to repeat, if not exceed, the disgrace of Durban in 2001," said David A. Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee.
Harris said in a statement he hoped the rest of the EU would join the pullout.
Italy is the first European Union country to officially withdraw from the conference, though other nations have threatened not to attend.
Islamic countries, still angry over cartoons and films attacking Muslims, have been campaigning for wording that would equate criticism of a religious faith with a violation of human rights.
The informal negotiations have proven difficult, with many issues that marked the first UN conference on racism in 2001 re-emerging - such as criticism of Israel.
The April 20-25 meeting in Geneva is designed to review progress in fighting racism since the previous summit in South Africa. That meeting was marred by attacks on Israel and anti-Israel demonstrations at a parallel conference of non-governmental organizations.
The U.S. and Israel walked out midway through the conference over a draft resolution that singled Israel out for criticism and likened Zionism - the movement to establish and maintain a Jewish state - to racism.
Last week, the Obama administration said the United States will stay away from this year's meeting unless its final document is changed to drop all references to Israel and the defamation of religion.
European nations have expressed hope the summit can go ahead with a final text that is acceptable to all sides.
But they, too, have red lines they say cannot be crossed.
Dutch Foreign Minister Maxime Verhagen said in December that his country would walk out unless anti-Israel statements were scrapped. French diplomat Daniel Vosgien said then that his country opposed the idea of banning criticism of religion.
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