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Austrian president seeks to reassure Holocaust survivors on government

VIENNA (Reuters) - Austria’s president pledged to be vigilant against anti-Semitism and xenophobia on Thursday after a Holocaust survivors group expressed concern about the new government that includes a far-right party founded by former Nazis.

Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen waits for Swiss President Alain Berset (not pictured) to arrive in Vienna, Austria January 9, 2018. REUTERS/Heinz-Peter Bader

Last month the Freedom Party (FPO) entered government as the junior coalition partner to Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s conservatives after a parliamentary election in which both pledged to stop illegal immigration and to fight radical Islam.

“For me, the coalition with the far-right FPO... poses a danger for Austria,” 94-year-old Austrian Holocaust survivor Aba Lewit said in an open letter published by the Austrian Mauthausen Committee, which represents survivors of the Mauthausen concentration camp in northern Austria.

“I will work to ensure for the duration of my tenure that destructive nationalism, xenophobia, right-wing extremism and anti-Semitism have no place in Austria,” President Alexander Van der Bellen replied.

“I have pointed out (in talks with the cabinet) that there is a need for mindfulness when it comes to the use of language. How we deal with words and formulations is not irrelevant. They form our consciousness and later our reality.”

Earlier on Thursday, Interior Minister Herbert Kickl of the FPO said asylum seekers should be “concentrated” in special centers to help the authorities process their applications swiftly.

For many observers, Kickl’s wording evoked Nazi-era concentration camps, and his remark soon made headlines in Austrian media. Several opposition parties also criticized his choice of words.

“I expect a real and believable apology from the interior minister,” said Steffi Krisper of the liberal Neos party. “It looks like a deliberate provocation which is subsequently denied in a half-hearted fashion.”

When asked by reporters whether he had deliberately chosen the word “concentrated”, Kickl said there was no need for a “semantic discussion” and that he did not mean to provoke anyone.

Kurz’s government has repeatedly criticized the current system under which accommodation for asylum seekers is largely provided by aid groups such as the Red Cross, which outsource some activities to private contractors. It argues that the current system is inefficient.

Nazis held and killed millions of Jews, political dissenters, disabled people, Roma and Sinti among others in concentration camps during World War Two. Nazi Germany annexed Austria, where Adolf Hitler was born, in 1938.

The FPO says it has left its founders’ Nazi past behind it and now denounces anti-Semitism while openly courting Jewish voters, with little obvious success. It has, however, had to expel several officials in recent years over Nazi allegations.

Austria’s main Jewish body this week said it would continue a self-imposed ban on political contact with the FPO.

Reporting by Shadia Nasralla; editing by Francois Murphy and Toby Chopra