Pope Benedict XVI underlined the importance of the conference on racism

Italy, April 20, 2009 - Pope Benedict XVI underlined the importance of a U.N.-sponsored international conference on racism and urged participants to take concrete steps to combat discrimination and intolerance around the world.

The conference, which opened in Geneva April 20, was being boycotted by the United States and several other Western countries because of fears that it would provide a platform to critics of Israel.

The pope, speaking at a noon blessing at his villa outside Rome April 19, said the conference was important because, despite the lessons of history, racist attitudes and actions are still present in contemporary society.

He encouraged participants to take "firm and concrete action, at the national and international levels, to prevent and eliminate every form of racism and intolerance." Above all, he said, a vast educational effort is needed so that human dignity and fundamental human rights are better understood and respected.

"For its part, the church teaches that only recognition of the dignity of man, created in the image and likeness of God, is able to constitute a sure reference point in this commitment," he said.

"I sincerely encourage all delegates present at the Geneva conference to work together in a spirit of mutual dialogue and acceptance in order to put an end to every form of racism, discrimination and intolerance," he said.

The Vatican sent a delegation to the Geneva conference, which was convened to examine the statement adopted in 2001 at the U.N.'s first conference on racism held in Durban, South Africa. The United States and Israel left the 2001 conference when some Arab representatives argued that Zionism was equivalent to racism.

Shortly after the pope's remarks, Germany became the latest country to announce it would not attend the Geneva conference, joining the United States, Israel, the Netherlands, Australia, Canada and Italy.

Critics of the conference were especially concerned that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has called the Holocaust a myth, was scheduled to address the assembly in its opening session.

In a statement released April 18, the U.S. State Department said the text under consideration at the Geneva conference "singles out one particular conflict and prejudges key issues that can only be resolved in negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians."

The statement said the United States also has serious concerns with relatively new additions to the text regarding "incitement" to religious hatred that run counter to the U.S. commitment to unfettered free speech. Unfortunately, the U.S. statement said, it appeared that those concerns would not be addressed at the Geneva conference.

Some Muslim countries have pressed for a ban on language considered insulting to Islam.

President Barack Obama said the United States would not participate because the Geneva conference risked a repeat of the Durban experience of 2001, when "folks expressed antagonism toward Israel in ways that were oftentimes completely hypocritical and counterproductive."

The text under consideration in Geneva has been revised in recent months, and the latest draft does not include references to Israel or Zionism.

Navi Pillay, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, said she was shocked and disappointed at the U.S. decision not to attend the conference. She said the boycott by several countries undercuts the global effort to fight racism and intolerance.

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