BERLIN (Reuters) - Lawmakers from the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) walked out of the Bavarian parliament on Wednesday after a Jewish community leader accused the party during a speech to commemorate the Holocaust of playing down Nazi crimes.
"A party is represented here today that disparages those (democratic) values and downplays the crimes of the National Socialists," Charlotte Knobloch, a Holocaust survivor and President of the Jewish Community in Munich, told the regional assembly.
All but four AfD lawmakers in the Bavarian lower house stood up and left the hall as legislators from the other five parties applauded Knobloch.
The AfD, which has always rejected charges of racism, entered the Bavarian parliament for the first time in a regional election last year, winning 22 seats to become the fourth largest party, on a par with the centre-left Social Democrats.
The rise of the AfD, which has representatives in all of Germany's 16 regional assemblies, has alarmed Jewish leaders who accuse it of contributing to a rise in anti-Semitism.
The AfD also entered the lower house of the federal parliament in Berlin, the Bundestag, for the first time in a national election last year, drawing support from a broad array of voters angry with Chancellor Angela Merkel's decision in 2015 to welcome almost a million, mainly Muslim asylum seekers.
"HATE AND EXCLUSION"
"The so-called AfD bases it politics on hate and exclusion and doesn't abide by our democratic constitution," Knobloch said in her speech, given in remembrance of the six million Jews murdered by the Nazis.
Katrin Ebner-Steiner, the AfD's parliamentary leader in Bavaria, defended her colleagues' protest walkout.
"It is scandalous that the president of the Jewish community in Munich abused a memorial service for the victims of Nazism to defame the whole AfD and its legitimate and democratically elected faction using evil blanket insinuations," she said.
Knobloch later told Reuters she was not surprised when AfD lawmakers walked out on her speech.
"The supportive reaction from the democratic factions made me really happy," she wrote in an email. "Democrats in our country must stand against the AfD also in the future."
German politicians in June rebuked AfD co-leader Alexander Gauland after he said Hitler and the Nazis "are just bird shit in 1,000 years of successful German history".
Two years ago, Bjoern Hoecke, the AfD's leader in the eastern state of Thuringia, triggered anger after he told supporters that Berlin's memorial to the victims of the Holocaust was a "memorial of shame" and that history books should be rewritten to focus more on German victims.
(Reporting by Joseph Nasr; Editing by Gareth Jones)