Protests greet Iranian leader

By Ruth Ellen Gruber, June 6, 2008

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad prompted street protests and diplomatic snubs during a one-day visit this week to Rome, where he also reiterated attacks on Israel.

The controversial Iranian leader, making his first trip to the West as Iranian president, was in Rome on Tuesday for the World Food Summit of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).

A number of protests took place, including one where demonstrators bore banners and flyers emblazoned with a photograph of Mr Ahmadinejad superimposed with a “prohibited” symbol. A group of young Jews launched thousands of anti-Ahmadinejad flyers in the air from a balcony of the historic Colosseum.

Several dozen Jews waving Israeli flags and chanting “Israel, Israel” tried to march from the site of the former Jewish ghetto to the summit venue at the FAO headquarters, but were halted at the ruins of the ancient Circus Maximus by heavy security.

Banners bearing the slogan “Hungry for Liberty” draped the famous Spanish Steps, and a big sit-in organised by a local newspaper and backed by the Jewish community and Rome’s mayor was held at Rome City Hall.

Italian political leaders, meanwhile, refused to meet Mr Ahmadinejad.

Gianfranco Fini, the president of the Chamber of Deputies, cancelled an upcoming meeting with the Iranian ambassador after Mr Ahmadinejad on Monday accused Israel of “60 years of plundering, aggression and crimes” and predicted that the “criminal and terrorist Zionist regime” would soon disappear off the map. He renewed this claim on arrival in Rome.

Italian Defence Minister Ignazio La Russa expressed “deep concern” at Mr Ahmadinejad’s remarks, and the World Jewish Congress said it had complained about Mr Ahmadinejad’s presence to both the FAO and Italian officials.

“It is deplorable that a leader like him, who is failing both his own people and the international community, is allowed to hijack the agenda of this important FAO conference,” WJC President Ronald Lauder said in the statement.

Pope Benedict XVI declined Mr Ahmadinejad’s request for a private audience, but a Vatican statement denied that this was a snub. The Pope, it said, had declined all such requests during the food summit as there would not have been time to meet all the leaders who wanted to see him.

Last updated: 11:33am, June 5 2008