By Marton Dunai
BUDAPEST (Reuters) - Hungary late on Wednesday delayed the unveiling of a planned World War Two memorial until after elections in April, the latest twist in a bitter dispute with Jewish groups who say the monument whitewashes Hungary's role in the Holocaust.
Earlier this month, the Hungarian Jewish Congregations' Association voted to boycott state events marking the anniversary of the Holocaust in Hungary unless plans for the statue were scrapped.
The monument, which commemorates the German occupation of Hungary in 1944, was supposed to be inaugurated on March 19, the 70th anniversary of the event, but that date has been pushed back to May 31, Budapest said.
"The government considers it an important social policy goal to... erect the monument to the occupation's victims," the government said in a decree announcing the delay.
Prime Minister Viktor Orban's center-right Fidesz party is a favorite to win re-election for a new four-year term on April 6, according to opinion polls. Hungarians also vote in European Parliament elections on May 25.
Since the war, anti-Semitism has remained a big problem in the central European nation, which is home to one of the largest and oldest Jewish communities in Europe.
A burgeoning far-right movement, spearheaded by the highly vocal and visible Jobbik party, has earned Hungary international scorn and threatened to damage its reputation.
Orban's government has publicly pledged zero tolerance for anti-Semitism, but Jewish leaders at home and abroad feel he has not done enough to tackle the issue.
In a letter to the Association of Hungarian Jewish Congregations (Mazsihisz) on Wednesday, Orban said talks about the monument should continue after Easter, which falls on April 18-21 this year. He did not mention the plans to complete the statue by May 31.
"I agree with you that teaching our children about the horrific events of the Shoah is important, as is knowing the history of Hungarian-Jewish coexistence, especially the values that Hungarians and Jews gave each other," Orban wrote.
"However, as you know the election campaign kicked off on February 15. I concede that the present moment is hardly suitable to discuss our opinions with empathy and calm."
When asked by Reuters for the exact reason behind the delay, a government spokeswoman said the government would not comment on the issue beyond Orban's letter.
Mazsihisz chairman Andras Heiszler could not be reached for comment.
In Hungary the Holocaust began years before it came under direct German occupation, with anti-Jewish pogroms, several reported instances of mass killings and the deportation of thousands of Jews to labor camps.
Occupying German forces then received willing help from Hungarian authorities in deporting 437,000 Jews within a few weeks in 1944.
Plans for the disputed monument show it would depict the Archangel Gabriel, symbolizing Hungary, being attacked by a German Imperial eagle amid a row of 7-metre (20-ft) columns.
Critics say the arrangement puts Hungarians into the position of passive sufferers, underplaying the active role many played in the Holocaust.
Analyst Attila Juhasz at the think tank Political Capital said the government's plans for the monument, as well as the delay of its inauguration, were wholly with the April vote in mind.
"This is a completely conscious move, timed perfectly for the elections," Juhasz said.
"The Jewish complaints were predictable, and Fidesz can show Hungary is under attack again. Whether the statue is built or not, it divides the electorate and mobilizes their voters."
However, tough resistance from Jewish groups may have contributed to Orban's decision to delay the unveiling, he said. In addition, the Rabbinical Centre of Europe (RCE) is due to hold its general assembly in Budapest at the end of March.
Juhasz said that Orban may also be trying to avoid open confrontation with international Jewish leaders. The RCE confirmed to Reuters it was planning to hold the assembly in Budapest.
The Jewish magazine Szombat published an editorial on its web site on Thursday in which it said Jews could only accept the complete abandonment of the plans.
"The losses and the memory of the Shoah cannot be a matter of negotiations, and cannot be a tool," the editor, Gabor Szanto, wrote. "If (the government) won't show us honest and unselfish empathy then we are better off remembering separately."
(Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)