By Michelle Martin
BERLIN (Reuters) - The anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) is a guarantor of Jewish life in Germany because it opposes immigration from largely Muslim migrants, the co-leader of the far-right party told a German newspaper on Thursday.
More than a million newcomers, many of them Muslims, have arrived in Germany in the last two years, and the AfD has capitalized on concerns about the influx and integration.
The comments come as the AfD is embroiled in a scandal over its attitude toward Adolf Hitler's Third Reich, during which over 6 million Jews were murdered. Senior AfD member Bjoern Hoecke has called Berlin's Holocaust Memorial a "monument of shame" and has denied Adolf Hitler was "absolutely evil".
Responding to criticism from Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, who last week called the AfD a "disgrace for Germany", Frauke Petry told Die Welt newspaper the AfD had been democratically elected to 11 of Germany's 16 regional parliaments and Lauder should recognize that.
"And as a Jewish representative he should also realize that the AfD is one of the few political guarantors of Jewish life, including in times of illegal anti-Semitic migration to Germany," Petry said.
Petry and her supporters want Hoecke expelled from the party, but other members have defended him. Two-thirds of the executive board voted in February to oust him and it is now up to a party arbitration body to decide whether to let that stand.
"Remembering the atrocities of the Holocaust is one of our political creeds," Petry said, but added it was not enough just to focus on the "controversial" Berlin Holocaust Memorial.
In its draft election program, the AfD criticized reducing Germany's history to the Nazi era and urged a "wider view of history that also includes aspects of German history that have contributed to our identity in a positive way".
The safety of Jewish communities is particularly sensitive in Germany due to the Holocaust. Some German Jews have expressed concern that the influx of refugees from the Middle East could result in increasing anti-Semitism
Mass-selling Bild newspaper on Thursday printed three stories about Jewish people in Germany who complained they had been attacked or insulted because they were Jews.
Petry pointed to comments from Josef Schuster, president of the Central Council of Jews, who has warned against wearing skullcaps in areas where there is a large Muslim population, saying the AfD had cautioned immigration increased that risk.
Charlotte Knobloch, former head of Germany's Central Council of Jews, condemned Petry's comments and said the AfD was misusing justified concerns among Jews for its own ends.
Knobloch added that anti-Semitism had been a problem among the Muslim community in Germany for years and had not just been imported recently.
Support for the AfD has declined as immigration has fallen out of the headlines - it is currently polling between 7 and 11 percent, above the 5 percent threshold to enter parliament but well below a high of 15.5 percent at the end of 2016.
(Reporting by Michelle Martin; Editing by Toby Davis)