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UNESCO candidate regrets "book-burning" comment

PARIS (Reuters) - Egyptian Culture Minister Farouk Hosni, a candidate for the top job at the United Nations culture agency UNESCO, apologised on Wednesday for calling for Israeli books to be burnt.

Farouk Hosni, the Egyptian Minister of Culture, speaks to the press before the world premiere of the 'The Princess of the Sun', an animated French-Belgium cartoon about Tutankhamun's reign held at the pyramids in Giza, March 13 2007. REUTERS/Tara Todras-Whitehill/Files

Hosni’s bid for the post of UNESCO director-general provoked the anger of a group of intellectuals who accused him of anti-Semitism in a French newspaper column last week.

Writing in the same newspaper, Le Monde, Hosni said he regretted his words, adding that they had allowed detractors to associate him with things that he found hateful.

“Nothing is more distant to me than racism, the negation of others or the desire to hurt Jewish culture or any other culture,” he wrote.

Philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy, film director Claude Lanzmann and Nobel Peace Price laureate Elie Wiesel last week quoted Hosni as saying he would burn Israeli books and calling Israeli culture “inhuman”.

“Let’s burn these books; if there are any, I will burn them myself before you,” they quoted Hosni as telling a member of parliament who had confronted him about the presence of Israeli books in Egyptian libraries last May.

Hosni told media at the time he had meant the comments as “hyperbole”.

UNESCO will elect a new director-general in October and Hosni, who has been nominated by the Egyptian government, was viewed as a front-runner to become the Arab world’s first head of the Paris-based organisation.

However, Levy, Lanzmann and Wiesel urged other countries to block his candidature, saying Hosni had a record of denigrating Israeli culture.

“Israeli culture is an inhuman culture; it’s an aggressive, racist, pretentious culture that is based on a simple principle, stealing that which does not belong to it and then claiming it as its own,” they quoted him as saying in 2001.

Hosni avoided any direct reference to this in his article, but said that if any of his remarks had appeared harsh, they should be placed in the context of the suffering of the Palestinian people.

He added that his words had not been meant to hurt anyone.

No one at UNESCO was available for comment.

In 1979, Egypt became the first Arab country to sign a peace treaty with Israel, but has since observed a “cold peace”, resisting warmer relations or cultural ties.

UNESCO, the U.N. agency for culture and education, has regularly found itself embroiled in controversy.

In 1999, the election of the current director-general, Japan’s Koichiro Matsuura, was marred by allegations of corruption, bidding wars and rigged votes.

The United States withdrew from UNESCO in 1984 in protest against alleged financial mismanagement and perceived anti-U.S. bias, returning to the fold in 2003. Britain and Singapore have also boycotted the organisation in the past.