Merkel to Assist WJC Program for Outreach to Muslim World

NEW YORK - German Chancellor Angela Merkel officially agreed yesterday to support an innovative World Jewish Congress (WJC) program involving the establishment of an international body to work on improving relations between Western countries and the Muslim world.

The plan calls for regular dialogue between Western and Muslim countries, with the main objective being to prevent a deterioration in relations. It was developed in light of the Iran nuclear crisis and the statements President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has made, in which he has called for the destruction of Israel and questioned the Holocaust.

The initiative was the main topic of discussion in talks yesterday in Berlin between Merkel - who is due to visit Israel on Sunday - and Rabbi Israel Singer, chairman of the WJC's governing board. The meeting was the first Merkel conducted with a representative of an international Jewish organization since she was elected chancellor in November 2005.

Merkel promised to support the establishment of a joint research group to find ways of opening regular dialogue between Western states and the Muslim world. She also criticized recent comments by Ahmadinejad, saying they contribute to the possibility of a rise in Holocaust denial, which in Germany is against the law. Merkel is set to meet with Holocaust survivors during her visit to Jerusalem on Sunday.

Singer said during the meeting that his organization has a lot of experience with opening channels of dialogue, citing discussions with the Catholic Church that began 40 years ago. Singer has previously said that the years of Jewish-Catholic dialogue following the 1965 Vatican declaration "Nostra Aetate" could serve as a role model for rapprochement with the Islamic world.

The dialogue with the Catholic Church, said Singer, shows that over the course of decades, a hatred of thousands of years can be overcome. He has been engaged in intensive talks with the Vatican, including with Pope Benedict XVI, whom he met in June 2005.

Singer told Haaretz yesterday that Merkel also promised to begin negotiations shortly over various commitments to Holocaust survivors that have yet to be fulfilled.