From the western edge of the Muslim world, the King of Morocco has dared to tackle one of the most inflammatory issues in the Middle East conflict - the Holocaust.
At a time when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's dismissal of the Holocaust has made the biggest headlines, King Mohammed VI has called the Nazi destruction of the Jews "one of the most tragic chapters of modern history," and has endorsed a Paris-based program aimed at spreading the word among fellow Muslims.
Many in the Islamic world still ignore or know little about the Nazi attempt to annihilate the Jews during World War II. Some disbelieve it outright. Others argue that it was a European crime and imagine it to be the reason Israel exists and the Palestinians are stateless.
The sentiment was starkly illustrated in March after a Palestinian youth orchestra performed for Israeli Holocaust survivors, only to be shut down by angry leaders of the West Bank refugee camp where they live.
"The Holocaust happened, but we are facing a similar massacre by the Jews themselves," a community leader named Adnan Hindi said at the time. "We lost our land and we were forced to flee."
Like other moderate Arab leaders, King Mohammed VI must tread carefully. Islamic fervor is rising in his kingdom, highlighted in 2003 by al-Qaeda-inspired attacks in Casablanca on targets that included Jewish sites. Forty-five people died.
The king's acknowledgment of the Holocaust, in a speech read out in his name at a ceremony in Paris in March, appears to further illustrate the radically different paths that countries like Morocco and Iran are taking.
Morocco has long been a quiet pioneer in Arab-Israeli peace efforts, most notably when it served as a secret meeting place for the Israeli and Egyptian officials who set up President Anwar Sadat's groundbreaking journey to Jerusalem in 1977.
Though Moroccan officials say the timing is coincidental, the Holocaust speech came at around the same time that Morocco severed diplomatic relations with Iran, claiming it was infiltrating Shiite Muslim troublemakers into this Sunni nation.
The speech was read out at a ceremony launching the "Aladdin Project," an initiative of the Paris-based Foundation for the Memory of the Shoah which aims to spread awareness of the genocide among Muslims.
It organizes conferences and has translated key Holocaust writing such as Anne Frank's diary into Arabic and Farsi. The name refers to Aladdin, the young man with the genie in his lamp, whose legend, originally Muslim, became a universally loved tale.
The Holocaust, the king's speech said, is "the universal heritage of mankind."
Morocco a 'unique case'
It was "a very important political act," said Anne-Marie Revcolevschi, director of the Shoah foundation. "This is the first time an Arab head of state takes such a clear stand on the Shoah," she said in a telephone interview.
Andre Azoulay, a top adviser to the current king, is Jewish and one of six members of the king's council in a monarchy that oversees all major decisions. Considered one of Morocco's most powerful men, he views his country as "a unique case" for the intensity of its Jewish-Muslim relations. "We don't mix up Judaism and the tragedy of the Middle East," he told The Associated Press in an interview.
A founding member of the Aladdin project, Azoulay says part of the program's goal is to show the West that Muslims aren't hostile to Jews, and that Morocco was among countries that resisted Nazi plans to exterminate their Jewish populations. He points to King Mohammed V, the current ruler's grandfather, who is credited with resisting French colonial anti-Semitic policies.
The Aladdin project is only just beginning. Its work has yet to reach schools or bookstores in Morocco, although the Shoah foundation's Revcolevschi said Anne Frank's diary is among Holocaust memoirs available in Arabic and Farsi on the Internet, and is being sold under the counter in Iran.
"People speak of a clash of civilizations, but it's more a clash of ignorance," she said. "We're countering this."
Hakim El Ghissassi, an aide to the senior Islamic Affairs official who delivered Mohammed's speech, said the king is uniquely positioned to promote Islam's dialogue with Judaism, because his titles include "Commander of the believers" — meaning he is the paramount authority for Moroccan Muslims.
"What the king has said on the Holocaust reflects our broader efforts," said El Ghissassi, listing such reforms as courses to reinforce Morocco's tradition of tolerant Islam by familiarizing local imams with Jewish and Christian holy books.
"We want to make sure everybody can differentiate between unfair Israeli policies and respect for Judaism," he said.