(CNSNews.com) - One day before meeting Pope John Paul II this past weekend, the senior Muslim cleric in Jerusalem caused a stir when he disputed the historically-accepted fact that the Nazis murdered six million Jews during the Second World War.
"Six million? It was a lot less," he told the Italian newspaper, La Repubblica
In a separate interview with a wire service, Sabri said: "The number was less than six million and Israel is using this issue to get sympathy worldwide."
Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls was quoted as saying the Pope's meeting with the mufti would go ahead as scheduled, despite the remarks. Navarro-Valls declined to react to the comments.
The Pope has gone further than any of his predecessors in denouncing anti-Semitism, and he moved many Jews when he visited Jerusalem's Yad v'Shem Holocaust Memorial last week.
Sabri is an appointee of Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat, who installed him as the senior cleric at the Jerusalem mosques in violation of the Oslo Accords. Before Sabri's appointment, muftis traditionally were appointed by, and answerable to, the Jordanian king.
During an earlier part of the papal visit, Sabri boycotted a multifaith meeting hosted by the Pope. His replacement, the head of the Islamic court in the PA self-rule areas, used the opportunity to make a vitriolic anti-Israel speech before leaving early.
Sabri told the wire agency Saturday the Holocaust was "not my problem. Muslims didn't do anything on this issue. It's the doing of Hitler who hated the Jews."
Ironically, Sabri's wartime predecessor, Mufti of Jerusalem Haj Amin el-Husseini, spent some of the war years in Berlin and threw his full support behind Hitler's efforts to exterminate the Jews of Europe.
On March 1, 1944, Husseini broadcast a message over Radio Berlin exhorting the Arabs: "Kill the Jews wherever you find them. This pleases Allah, history and religion. This saves you honor. Allah is with you."
Despite this history, Holocaust-denial has long been a feature in media of Israel's Arab neighbors.
Media monitors have documented dozens of statements by Arab officials and commentators that either deny the Holocaust happened at all, or try to minimize it.
In Egypt, the situation has become so bad that the Israeli ambassador last month publicly urged the media to stop carrying reports denying the Holocaust.
The Syria press has also been active. Damascus' official mouthpiece, Tishreen, carried an editorial in January saying Israel "invents stories regarding the Nazi Holocaust in which the Jews suffered and inflates them to astronomic proportions ..."
Palestinian media have carried reports and op-eds pushing this line. "Nobody in the West dares to stand up when the subject is the fictitious Nazi Holocaust against the Jews of Europe," Al-Manar said last year.
"Since the end of WWII, the victors have imposed their hegemony over history, and forged the legend of the Holocaust to extort the entire world, using the face of the ugly Nazi," the paper charged.
In June 1998, American Jewish organizations called on Arafat to take a stand against Holocaust denial among his officials and in Palestinian media.
They cited an article in the official PA daily, Al-Hayat Al-Jadidah, which called the Holocaust a "deceitful myth," and claimed that the Jews made up stories of gas chambers, and cynically distributed photos of Nazi soldiers shooting women and children.
In a letter to Arafat, the organizations said: "There can be little hope for reconciliation if people, especially the youth, are subject to constant indoctrination portraying their neighbors in such vile ways.
"We call on you, and the leadership of the Palestinian Authority, to denounce this historical revisionism and declare as unacceptable all written or oral denigration and diminution of the Holocaust."