Hassen Chalghoumi, a leading French Muslim cleric and president of the French ‘conference of Imams,’ paid a historic visit Monday to Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem.

The visit was especially emotional for Tunisian-born Chalghoumi, 40, who also serves as Imam [prayer leader] at the mosque of Drancy, a Paris suburb where French Jews were rounded up and deported to extermination camps in Poland during the Holocaust.

“This is not [only] the history of the Jewish people, it is our history as well,” said Chalghoumi following the visit. “By protecting this history, we protect the history of minorities.”

He said that when speaking at the memorial in his home town of Drancy he referred to 70,000 Jews deported from France, while the visit at Yad Vashem exposed the extermination of six million Jews.

“I came here not because it is a Jewish issue, but because it as a human one. In the name of hatred and a certain ideology … people killed more than six million humans.”

“I believe that speaking about the Holocaust, this human atrocity, will instill in us the sense that it must never happen again,” he added. “Those who deny the Holocaust are nothing but accomplices to these criminals. They want to perpetrate another Holocaust.”

Chalghoumi’s forthrightness on antisemitism and Holocaust denial has earned him quite a few enemies within France’s Muslim community. In May 2006, his home was ransacked following a Holocaust memorial ceremony he conducted in Drancy. His celebrated cooperation with Jewish organizations in France has won him the epithet ‘Imam of the Jews.’

“I am first and foremost an Imam of Muslims and lover of peace,” Chalghoumi said when asked about the sometimes uncomfortable title. “I came here not because it is a Jewish issue, but because it as a human one. In the name of hatred and a certain ideology … people killed more than six million humans.”

On Saturday, three Jews were attacked near the city of Lyon in south-west France by a group of ten men, likely of North African origin. In March, 4 Jews, including 3 children, were gunned down by an assailant of Algerian extraction, Muhammad Merah. Chalghoumi did not shy away from tying his visit on Monday to present-day antisemitic attacks across Europe.

Chalghoumi at Yad Vashem (photo credit: Elhanan Miller / Times of Israel)

Chalghoumi at Yad Vashem (photo credit: Elhanan Miller / Times of Israel)

“There is a rise in racist and antisemitic hatred at the moment in Greece, Poland and France. Today, during the economic crisis, it is time for solidarity, for working hand in hand.”

Chalghoumi came to Israel to participate in the France-Israel Democracy and Religion Forum which takes place in Tel Aviv June 6 and 7. During his visit to Jerusalem, he prayed at Al-Aqsa Mosque and met with Israel’s Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger and Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat.

“I believe that speaking about the Holocaust, this human atrocity, will instill in us the sense that it must never happen again.”

His next stop on the tour, a meeting with the Palestinian minister of religious affairs and journalists in Ramallah, would be an opportunity to convey his message of tolerance to fellow Muslims, he said.

“I hope one day millions of Muslims come here [to Yad Vashem] from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Algeria. Then there will be peace,” he said.