Iranians staged an international contest for cartoons depicting the Holocaust on Saturday but insisted the event was aimed at criticizing alleged Western double standards regarding free expression and not at denying the Nazi genocide.
The event was nevertheless likely to shock many around the world and could embarrass Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and other moderates who have tried to improve ties with the West following last year's landmark nuclear deal.
Iran has long backed armed groups committed to Israel's destruction and its leaders have called for it to be wiped off the map. Iran has also criticized depictions of the Prophet Muhammed, arguing that Western countries tolerate expression deemed offensive to Islam but not the questioning or denial of the Holocaust.
"We have never been after denying of the Holocaust or ridiculing its victims," contest organizer Masuod Shojai Tabatabaei said in a speech opening the event.
"If you find a single design that ridicules victims or denies, we are ready to close the exhibition," he said. "Jews who lost their lives in the Holocaust were subject to oppression by Nazis."
Nazi Germany and its collaborators killed 6 million Jews during the World War II-era genocide.
The denial or questioning of the genocide is widespread in the Middle East, where many believe it has been used as a pretext for the creation of Israel and to excuse Israel's actions toward the Palestinians.
"Holocaust means mass killing," Tabatabaei said. "We are witnessing the biggest killings by the Zionist regime in Gaza and Palestine."
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed the contest on Sunday morning, saying "We raise this here because it must be understood what our problem with Iran is. It is not just its policy of subversion and aggression in the region; it is the values on which it is based. (Iran) denies and belittles the Holocaust and it is also preparing another Holocaust. I think that every country in the world must stand up and fully condemn this. This is what I told US Secretary of State John Kerry last night in my conversation with him."
State Department spokesman Mark Toner, traveling with Secretary Kerry in Saudi Arabia, said the United States was concerned the contest could "be used as a platform for Holocaust denial and revisionism and egregiously anti-Semitic speech, as it has in the past."
"Such offensive speech should be condemned by the authorities and civil society leaders rather than encouraged. We denounce any Holocaust denial and trivialization as inflammatory and abhorrent. It is insulting to the memory of the millions of people who died in the Holocaust," Toner said.
The exhibit featured some 150 works from 50 countries, with many portraying Israel as using the Holocaust to distract from the suffering of the Palestinians. Others depicted Palestinian prisoners standing behind concentration camp-style barbed wire fences, Netanyahu likened to Nazi leader Adolf Hitler and a Jerusalem mosque behind a gate bearing the motto "Arbeit Macht Frei" that appeared at the entrance to the Auschwitz death camp.
The contest was organized by non-governmental bodies with strong support from Iran's hard-liners, who were opposed to the nuclear deal and are against taking further steps to improve ties with the West. Some $50,000 in prize money will go to 16 finalists, with the top winner receiving $12,000. The exhibition runs through May 30.
A previous contest was held in 2006 during the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a hard-liner who referred to the Holocaust as a "myth" and repeatedly predicted Israel's demise.
Tabatabaei also depicted the contest as a response to depictions of the Prophet Muhammad by the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and others, saying Western countries have a "double standard" when it comes to free speech. Holocaust denial and hate speech are illegal in some European countries.