TEHRAN - UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan told Iranians the Holocaust was "an undeniable historical fact" today after meeting President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who caused outrage in the West when he said it was a "myth".
Annan also condemned an exhibition of Holocaust cartoons in Tehran that was staged by an Iranian newspaper in retaliation for the September publication of caricatures of the Muslim Prophet Mohammad in Danish and other European newspapers.
Those drawings angered many Muslims and prompted attacks on European embassies, including missions in Iran.
"I think all of us in this room remember the uproar the Danish cartoons created particularly in this region," Annan said, adding that the right to freedom of expression had to be exercised with sensitivity and responsibility.
"I think the tragedy of the Holocaust is a sad and an undeniable historical fact so we should really handle that, accept that fact and teach children what happened in World War 2 and ensure that it is never repeated.
"We should be careful not to say anything that is used as an excuse for incitement to hatred or violence," he said.
Ahmadinejad described the Holocaust, in which six million Jews were killed by the Nazis, as a "myth" in December. He has not repeated that remark but has said the event is open to question.
Annan cancelled a trip to Iran in November after Ahmadinejad called for Israel to be "wiped off the map". That phrase also sparked Western condemnation and he has not repeated it. But his speeches are peppered with anti-Israel rhetoric.
A UN spokesman said Annan condemned the Holocaust cartoons as "distasteful" in Saturday's talks with Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki. A leading American Jewish group had urged Annan to speak out against the exhibition when in Iran.
Speaking at today's news conference with Annan, Mottaki said: "Historical issues can be studied and discussed by experts. What we both agree upon... is the importance of prohibiting insults."
Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi also told a separate news conference the Holocaust was "not a sacred issue that we cannot touch" and said a Holocaust conference would be held in Iran in the autumn.
"I have seen those camps myself. When I was an ambassador, I visited several of these camps. In my opinion, there has been a lot of exaggeration going on," Asefi said
More than 200 entries from the Holocaust competition have been put on display in Iran. Organisers said in mid-August, two weeks before the deadline, they had received about 1200 submissions.
The contest was originally on the Holocaust but international criticism prompted Iran's best-selling daily Hamshahri, which organised the competition, to broaden the rules to include any caricature that tests "freedom of expression".
One cartoon showed the Statue of Liberty holding a Holocaust book while giving a Nazi salute and another showed a turtle with a US emblem laying eggs carrying the Star of David.
The messages of the cartoons were not always clear, though several seemed to poke fun at the United States. One showed Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler smiling as he stood behind US President George W Bush while bombs carrying the Star of David fell.