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FILE PHOTO: Right-wing nationalists attend a ceremonial unveiling the statue of wartime leader Miklos Horthy in central Budapest November 3,2013. Hungary entered an uneasy and eventually disastrous alliance with Nazi Germany during World War II under the leadership of Horthy, who was unable to stop the deportation and killing of about half a million Jews. REUTERS/Laszlo Balogh

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BUDAPEST (Reuters) - A Budapest church has called off a memorial mass it was planning to hold in honour of a former Hungarian leader and Nazi ally on Saturday - International Holocaust Remembrance Day - after protests from Hungarian Jews and the World Jewish Congress.

Parliament's deputy speaker who is member of the ruling Fidesz party of Prime Minister Viktor Orban, had been due to speak at the event called in memory of interwar Governor Miklos Horthy.

The planned ceremony for Horthy, an admiral who led Hungary for 24 years until 1944 and handed over hundreds of thousands of Jews to the Nazis, triggered strong objections from Jewish organisations.

With the WJC declaring it a provocative measure honouring an "unabashed anti-semite", the Budapest church which had organised the Catholic ceremony, cancelled the event on Thursday.

The affair, ahead of a parliamentary election on April 8, has thrown a spotlight again on the policies of Orban who has an ambivalent track record on anti-Semitism.

He has repeatedly pledged zero tolerance for anti-Semitism, though he has called Horthy an "exceptional statesman." He has risked angering Israel and Jewish people with remarks about "ethnic homogeneity" apparently aimed at radical right-wing voters ahead of the April 8 election.

He has also used a massive billboard campaign against U.S. billionaire George Soros, a Hungarian-born Jew, to promote an anti-immigrant agenda that critics, including Soros, say harks back to the 1930s. The government strongly rejects this.

Zoltan Osztie, the priest of the Budapest church, said the church had a tradition of organising a mass for Horthy each year and nobody had noticed that Saturday was also International Holocaust Remembrance marking the day in 1945 when the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp was liberated.

"We could be blamed for this perhaps, but these two events can not be juxtaposed. Nonetheless, after discussion with church leaders a decision has been made that neither the memorial ceremony nor the mass will take place," he told szemlelek.blog.hu.

WJC President Ronald S. Lauder asked Orban to intervene, calling the event "nothing short of a provocative measure."

"The terror that Admiral Horthy, an unabashed anti-Semite, inflicted on the Jewish community of Hungary ... and his role in the deportation and murder of hundreds of thousands of Jews, must never be forgotten and can never be excused," Lauder wrote in a letter to Orban.

The government did not reply to Reuters questions.

Sandor Lezsak, deputy parliament speaker and a member of Fidesz party, had been due to speak at the ceremony, stirring protests from the Hungarian Jewish communities federation.

After Hungary's occupation by Germany in March 1944, still under Horthy's rule, Hungarian gendarmes and state organisations collaborated in the deportation of close to half a million Jews. Horthy stopped the deportations only in July 1944.

(Reporting by Krisztina Than; Editing by Richard Balmforth)

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Reuters