The Tehran regime's persecution of a dissident Shi'a cleric and his supporters reveals not just its own ruthlessness but the depth of opposition to its rule, says Nazenin Ansari
28 September 2006, 8 am, Avesta Street, Tehran: seven women and thirty-four men, aged between 23 and 60, leave the modest house after having spent another cold night in its courtyard guarding Ayatollah Sayyid Hossein Kazemeini Boroujerdi - a cleric who has become a thorn in the side of the ruling ayatollahs in Iran.
Unbeknownst to them, they are each followed by a number of plain-clothed agents and security officers. Once they reach their individual destinations, they are ambushed separately and taken to section 209 of Evin prison.
Protest among Ayatollah Boroujerdi's devotees
A further thirty-three people were arrested the following day. These seventy-four individuals are among hundreds of followers and supporters who have been shielding the ayatollah from arrest by the security forces since 30 July, when his house was attacked, his relatives arrested and tortured for twenty-one days in Evin prison.
Indeed the security forces returned to the house on 3 August to arrest the holy man himself. But the ayatollah's devotees forced them to retreat.
Ayatollah Sayyid Hossein Kazemeini Boroujerdi, born in Tehran and educated in Qom, is the author of numerous books and treatises on ethics, spirituality and the Qur'an. The ayatollah adheres to the official state religion in Iran, "twelver" Ja'fari Shi'a Islam.
This form of Shi'ism is founded on the concept of the twelve imams who were the rightful spiritual and political leaders of Muslims following the death of the Prophet Mohammed.
It is believed that the twelfth (or "hidden") imam, known as the Mahdi, lives in "occultation" but will one day return and resume the leadership of the faithful. Until that moment arrives, Bouroujerdi and fellow traditional Shi'a believe that political and religious authority should remain separated.
Kazemeini Boroujerdi, speaking under conditions of siege, maintains: "There is only one individual who has not erred and has no flaws. He is the lord of the age, the imam Mahdi. Only he has the legitimate competence to rule and pass judgment."
In other words, in the absence of the Mahdi, a theocracy such as the one ruling Iran today is illegitimate both ideologically and theologically, and as such all religious laws are null and void.
In fact, many Shi'a religious leaders and their followers in Iran have opposed the fundamental tenets of the present political system, established following the 1979 revolution. As a result, they have been imprisoned, tortured, publicly humiliated and put under house arrest. For many years little was known outside religious circles about the treatment inflicted on these individuals.
Meanwhile, as divisions between the traditional religious hierarchy and those in power intensified, the wider public gradually became aware of this schism, turned away from the state's prescribed version of Islam and took increasing refuge in traditional Shi'a Islam.
A claim of tradition
Kazemeini Boroujerdi first took a public stance against the ruling clerics in 1994. Until then he had kept his defiance private. But as he witnessed the loss of respect for religion - caused both by worsening economic and social conditions and the pervasive institutional and financial corruption that benefited senior officials and their relatives - he decided to act.
It happened when - as he led the celebration prayers to mark the end of the holy month of Ramadan, and in the tradition of the eighth Shi'a imam, imam Reza - he dressed himself in a white shroud and carried a sword as a sign of protest against the injustice of the clerics in power.
The problems that he identified then have persisted. Despite hundreds of billions of dollars in oil revenue, the per-capita income of Iranians today is 30% less than in 1978 - the year preceding the revolution. Unemployment is high and inflation rampant.
According to Jahangir Amuzegar, the distinguished Iranian economist and former member of the International Monetary Fund's executive board, the list of nationwide social ills is getting longer by the year; it reportedly encompasses twenty-five categories, including violent crime, drug addiction, abused children, runaway girls, dysfunctional families, increasing divorce rates, growing prostitution, rising suicides, and even slave-trading.
Kazemeini Boroujerdi insists: "the most afflicted victim of this theocracy has been God. Injustices perpetrated by the ruling clerics in the name of God have forced people to turn away from Him in droves."
Between 1994 and 2001, the defiant ayatollah was summoned on numerous occasions before the special court for the clergy. This court was established in 1987, and is charged (according to Amnesty International) "with investigating and trying crimes such as counter-revolution, corruption, immorality, unlawful acts, anything which might damage the prestige of the clergy and acts committed by pseudo-clergy."
Boroujerdi has been arrested, imprisoned and tortured on numerous occasions, and his mosque has been expropriated. Nevertheless, each time he was released he continued leading prayers from his home; and as the number of his adherents increased, he began to deliver his sermons at his father's mosque, Masjid Nour.
Kazemeini's father, Ayatollah Seyyed Mohammad Ali Kazemeini Boroujerdi, was a well-known figure in pre-revolutionary Tehran for more than fifty years. Along with many of his contemporaries, and like his son, he condemned the theocracy in Iran.
The older ayatollah died under suspicious circumstances whilst in hospital in 2002. His followers secretly buried his body in Masjid Nour, which then became a focal prayer-point for the believers and another point of contention with the regime. This mosque too was expropriated and the grave of the older ayatollah was desecrated.
On 21 September 2006, Kazemeini Boroujerdi was told in no uncertain terms that according to orders issued by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, he had to move his father's grave to a location outside of Tehran. He was threatened that unless he abided by the order, the Masjid Nour would be destroyed and replaced with a shopping-mall.
A call to the world
Despite being monitored and put under pressure, the defiant ayatollah has succeeded in spreading his message across a wider field. His followers come from all walks of life and political beliefs. By July 2006 he was communicating with them via 100 land and mobile lines, and had begun leading prayers in stadiums which could accommodate the many who wished to worship with him.
On 7 September, a representative of Gholamhussein Mohseni Ezhei, Iran's minister of information, visited the defiant ayatollah. During the meeting - which included heated exchanges - the ayatollah was ordered to either present himself before the special court of clergy or face dire consequences.
Kazemeini Boroujerdi protests: "the regime is adamant that either people adhere to political Islam or be jailed, exiled or killed. Its behaviour is no different from that of Osama bin Laden or Mullah Omar."
Now, the ayatollah is appealing to Pope Benedict XVI, Kofi Annan and Javier Solana for assistance. "This is not about me. It is about the freedom of worship. We hope that the international community supports Iranians' right to follow their traditional faith. We pray for the day when the United Nations Security Council passes a resolution in support of freedom of religion in Iran."
Ayatollah Kazemeini Boroujerdi insists that his demands are not political but rather humanitarian. "I do not wish to get involved in politics. But at a time when Iran is engulfed in so much chaos, the regime has to realise that now is not the time to create yet another crisis."
© OpenDemocracy 2006
This article was originally published on openDemocracy.net under a Creative Commons Licence
Nazenin Ansari is diplomatic correspondent of the Persian-language weekly newspaper "Kayhan" (London)