Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Germany's Merkel opposes banning Iran from World Cup


Chancellor Angela Merkel will not seek to ban Iran from the World Cup Germany is hosting because of inflammatory statements from Iran's president about Israel and the Holocaust, a government spokesman said on Wednesday.

Ulrich Wilhelm said Merkel does not believe Iran's soccer team or the country's fans should be punished over the remarks about Israel and the Holocaust by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, which she has condemned as unacceptable.

"Chancellor Merkel has made clear she personally doesn't believe in measures such as banning Iran from the World Cup that Germany is hosting," Wilhelm said when asked about a letter from an Israeli member of parliament urging her to exclude Iran.

"That would punish the sportsmen and the sport enthusiasts, the people, for the actions of a government," Wilhelm added. "But she believes his deplorable remarks are unacceptable and must be challenged politically in every way possible."

Gilad Erdan, a member of the Likud party who is chairman of the Israeli parliament's sports subcommittee, wrote to Merkel urging her to ban Iran from the world's top soccer tournament unless it retracts its views on Israel and the Holocaust.

"Dr. Merkel, you have a rare opportunity to take action and to signal to Iran that this latest behaviour is unaccepted by the international community and unaccepted by Germany and on German soil," he wrote in the letter obtained by Reuters.

Ahmadinejad has called in recent months for Israel to be "wiped off the map" and has referred to the Holocaust as a myth.

Erdan said he wrote the letter in response to Iran's announcement on Sunday that it was planning to hold a conference to assess the scale of the Holocaust.

Six million Jews died at the hands of Germany's Nazi regime between 1933 and 1945. Holocaust denial is a crime in Germany, punishable with a prison term of up to five years.

Merkel has condemned Ahmadinejad's comments but said earlier this month that she opposed banning Iran from the 32-nation tournament, which is due to take place in Germany from June 9 to July 9.

Some German soccer leaders have also spoken out in favour of banning Iran for the comments, in particular for denying the Holocaust.