TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras — A Jewish civil rights organization is expressing alarm over conspiracy theories claiming Jews and Israel aided the ouster of the Honduran president and attempts to dislodge him from his refuge in the Brazilian Embassy.
The U.S.-based Anti-Defamation League cited statements made by ousted President Manuel Zelaya as well as the news director of a radio station that was closed by the interim government in Honduras and by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, among others.
Most of the comments repeat widely circulated rumors that Israeli soldiers – or in some versions, mercenaries – worked with the troops backing interim President Roberto Micheletti, allegedly supplying some form of tear gas used at the embassy and providing other assistance.
The interim government, which came to power after the military arrested Zelaya and flew him to exile in Costa Rico on June 28, has denied receiving any Israeli help or using any tear gas at the embassy. Journalists who have covered the political crisis say they have not seen any sign of Israeli involvement.
The Jewish group also criticized Chavez for claiming at the United Nations that Israel is the only country to recognize the coup-installed government, something Micheletti's administration has denied.
The ADL also cited an interview with The Miami Herald in which Zelaya said that "Israeli mercenaries are torturing him with high-frequency radiation."
"We know from history that at times of turmoil and unrest, Jews are a convenient scapegoat," ADL national director Abraham H. Foxman, said in a statement released Sunday. "And that is happening now in Honduras, a country that has only a small Jewish minority."
The group estimates the Central American country is home to less than 100 families in a population of about 8 million.
Chavez, a Zelaya ally, has repeatedly criticized Israel, while insisting he is not anti-Semitic.
Zelaya was forced from office with the backing of the Honduran Congress and Supreme Court for trying to hold a referendum on rewriting the constitution. His opponents charged he wanted to lift the charter's provision limiting presidents to a single term. He denied that.
With the backing of much of the international community, including the U.S. government, Zelaya is seeking to be reinstated to serve out his term, which ends in January. He has been holed up in the Brazilian Embassy with dozens of supporters since slipping back into Honduras on Sept. 21.
Zelaya, responding to a copy of the ADL report sent to him in the embassy by The Associated Press, said he "profoundly respects people who practice other religions." He and noted he had been criticized by anti-Semites for including several Jews in his Cabinet.
"As a human being and president, I call on all Hondurans to abstain from making any anti-Semitic comments," Zelaya said in a statement.
Among the remarks criticized by the ADL is a statement by David Romero, news director of Radio Globo, which supports Zelaya.
On Sept. 25, commenting on the rumors alleging Israeli involvement in the crisis, Romero referred on air to the "famous Holocaust" and added that "I believe it should have been fair and valid to let Hitler finish his historic vision."
Romero apologized for the remarks Sunday in an interview with The Associated Press, saying that they were "stupid" statements made in the heat of the moment and that don't reflect his real views.
He said his grandfather was a Jewish immigrant from Czechoslovakia who came to Honduras to escape persecution in Europe.
"I apologize to the Jewish community here and throughout the world," Romero said.
Radio Globo was shut down and its equipment confiscated by security forces after Micheletti issued an emergency decree banning large-scale demonstrations and limiting civil liberties, including freedom of the press. The interim president, who has come under increasing pressure at home and abroad over the restrictions, is expected to decide Monday whether to lift the decree.
There have been some signs of progress in the bitter standoff, with Zelaya and the interim government negotiating through intermediaries ahead of a visit set for Wednesday by the secretary general of the Organization of American States and regional foreign ministers.
Victor Rico, an OAS official organizing the summit, told reporters Sunday that he saw reason for "reasonable optimism" with the discussions in recent days.
"I think the moment has arrived that all sides start to think about the suffering that this is causing for the Honduran people."