OSWIECIM, Poland — The head of the Muslim World League, Mohammed al-Issa, along with an entourage of prominent Muslim religious leaders, on Thursday joined counterparts from the American Jewish Committee on a landmark interfaith tour of the former Nazi extermination camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau.
The world had to ensure that “these kinds of horrible crimes” will never “happen again,” Issa, the secretary-general of the Mecca-based MWL and a former Saudi justice minister, said at the end of the visit.
Organizers said it was “the most senior Islamic leadership delegation” to visit the site of a Nazi death camp. The AJC said that Al-Issa led a delegation of 62 Muslims, including 25 prominent religious leaders, from some 28 countries during the “groundbreaking” visit. At one point, they prayed with their heads pressed on the ground at Birkenau, the largest part of the camp and the most notorious site of Germany’s mass murder of European Jews.
The two groups embarked on the tour amid a flurry of hugs and warm handshakes just days ahead of the 75th anniversary of the camps’ liberation by Soviet troops.
The delegation will continue on to the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw on Friday, then visit the city’s Nozyk Synagogue and a local mosque, and share in an interfaith Shabbat meal.
At the death camp, the group was shown the gruesome evidence of the horrors the Nazis inflicted on the camps’ prisoners, which included some 1 million Jews, 75,000 Poles, 21,000 Roma, 14,000 Soviets and around 15,000 others, such as Jehovahs Witness and homosexuals, according to the Auschwitz Memorial Museum. The trip culminated in a memorial service between the former gas chambers and crematorium, at which both Jewish and Muslim prayers were offered on behalf of the Holocaust victims.
The Nazis murdered 1.1 million people at Auschwitz from 1940 to 1945, the vast majority of whom were European Jews. They killed most of the victims in gas chambers.
American Jewish Committee CEO David Harris called the trip “groundbreaking,” and said it represented “the most senior delegation of Muslim religious leaders to visit Auschwitz ever” in comments to The Times of Israel prior to the trip.
He believes it will enhance Muslim understanding of the Holocaust.
“To have a major Muslim leader openly saying that the Holocaust happened, that it was horrible, that we have to remember it — this is a huge change,” said Polish chief rabbi Michael Schudrich as the group shuttled between Auschwitz and nearby Birkenau. “It is historic that this level of a Muslim delegation is coming to Auschwitz for the express purpose of mourning and paying homage to the Jewish genocide that happened here.”
Issa’s face reflected feelings of shock and sadness as he looked at piles of used canisters of Zyklon-B, the gas used to suffocate victims, along with mounds of eyeglasses, shoes, prayer shawls, and human hair that the Nazis collected from incoming prisoners.
Many others on the delegation, both Jewish and Muslim, reacted similarly. Some stood lost in the displays long after the group had moved on.
It was not Issa’s first visit to a Holocaust museum. He toured the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, in May 2018, and wrote an opinion article in the Washington Post in January 2019 condemning the Nazis’ “heinous crimes.” He also declared that “Muslims around the world have a responsibility to learn” about the lessons of the Holocaust.
“I urge all Muslims to learn the history of the Holocaust, to visit memorials and museums of this horrific event and to teach its lesson to their children,” wrote Issa, who is considered an ally of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that Issa has had a moderating effect on the Muslim World League, which once propagated “a virulent strain of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic writing, thinking and preaching.”
Under Issa’s leadership, Satloff said, the organization has shifted its approach to curb hardliners and reach out to other faiths.
The league, which was founded in 1962, is subsidized by the Saudi government; it also supports mosques and Islamic centers globally.
“Recently there’s been an interest in taking risks, and let’s be honest, the risks that the Muslims face are far more real than the ones the Jews face. It can be life and death,” American Jewish Committee board member Daniel Pincus told The Times of Israel about this latest push for interfaith cooperation.
“I don’t sense that Jews face this,” Pincus said. “Jews who go out and try to do Muslim-Jewish relations or Arab-Israeli relations don’t face death threats in the way that Muslims might if they go back home.”
At the memorial service concluding the tour, the children of Holocaust survivors spoke about their parents’ experiences, and candles were placed near the former crematorium in honor of the dead. The Kaddish, along with “El Maleh Rachamim,” both Jewish prayers of mourning, were recited. Issa then led the delegation of Muslim personages in prayer. But first, he addressed the crowd.
“According to Islamic faith, we do not have double standards in recognizing these kinds of crimes,” Issa said. “I would like to express to all of you that myself and my colleagues, the Islamic leaders, are deeply touched and affected by these horrible crimes and pictures we’ve seen throughout these monuments.”
“Unfortunately, humanity is still suffering from these kinds of crimes on a large scale today, different human beings [perpetrating] against each other,” he said.” I believe there is a huge responsibility on the international community to do something to deal with these kinds of horrible crimes and to make sure none of this will happen again. Our world will not be able to achieve peace unless we have a strong will together to fight evil.”
Following the ceremony, the media lined up to ask questions. When The Times of Israel identified itself, one of Issa’s assistants said that the cleric would not be able to answer any questions from Israeli media “here, especially with all the cameras.”
“Stay in touch,” he said. “We will speak soon.”
Adam Rasgon and AP contributed to this report.