Iranian security forces and pro-government militants clashed sporadically Monday with hundreds of thousands of reformist mourners at the funeral of Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, Iran's top dissident cleric.
The death of the grand ayatollah, for 20 years a fearless critic of the Islamic regime he helped to create, will be a blow to Iran's opposition "Green Movement," by silencing a supporting voice from one of the highest-ranking theologians in the Shiite Muslim world.
However, Montazeri's death, coming during the most important religious event of the Shiite year, one that commemorates resistance and martyrdom, also creates a powerful political rallying point that will bolster anti-regime sentiment.
The tensions over the death of the 87-year-old theologian get at the heart of the political and religious divide in Iran, where no one else has had both the theological gravitas and the sheer political moxie to challenge Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Yet the diminutive Montazeri did so, repeatedly, in keeping with a lifetime of challenging authoritarian rule as un-Islamic.
Montazeri called the disputed June 12 reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad "fraudulent," and said it had "no religious or political legitimacy." He said: "No one in their right mind" can believe the results." He issued a number of statements after the vote, including calling Iran's Islamic Republic "neither Islamic nor republic."
During the 10-day religious ritual now that's underway, Shiites commemorate the 7th Century resistance and faith of their most important martyr, Imam Hossein.
The seventh day of mourning for Montazeri will coincide with the peak of that commemoration, Ashura, the anniversary of Hossein's death and a day on which Iran's opposition "Green Movement" had long been planning to demonstrate its continued strength.
Now Montazeri's death presents the government with a dilemma: allow religious street celebrations or crack down on the participants?
Iranians traditionally take to the streets that night, and opposition activists, who've hijacked most officially sanctioned street rallies since the disputed June vote, have planned to take advantage of religious observances to make clear the popularity of their cause.
Iranian authorities for months have made it clear that they'd crack down on any political dissent, and Khamenei has described not accepting the election results as the "biggest crime."
Huge crowds bearing opposition green colors, ribbons, and flags came from across Iran for Montazeri's funeral in Qom, Iran's religious center 60 miles south of Tehran.
"Dictator, Montazeri's way will continue," was one chant reported by opposition Web sites. Another chant: "Montazeri is not dead, it is the government which is dead."
Opposition Web sites estimated the turnout at hundreds of thousands, and those numbers were corroborated by a conservative website.
Protesters also vowed, "Innocent Montazeri, your path will be continued even if the dictator should rain bullets on our heads," according to another reformist Web site, as translated by Reuters.
Mourners Monday chanted another reformist rallying cry, "Ya Hossein, Mir Hossein," combining the name of the 7th Century martyr and that of opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi who, according to official election results, lost to Ahmadinejad in June.
Mousavi, a former prime minister, and cleric Mehdi Karoubi, another opposition leader and a former parliament speaker whose presidential bid was quashed by the official results, both made appearances in Qom to pay their respects.
Montazeri's son Saeed was quoted on Sunday saying: "I think one of the main reasons (for his death) was his grief for the post-election events which troubled my father a lot," according to a translation at enduringamerica.com.
Iran's Nobel Peace Laureate Shirin Ebadi called Montazeri "the father of human rights in Iran," and said she considered herself "one of the millions of his followers and students."
Clashes erupted Monday between reformist mourners and pro-regime Basiji militiamen, who reportedly shouted: "Shame on you hypocrites; leave the city of Qom."
Iranian officials ordered journalists to play down the story, and some received calls saying they'd be arrested if they went to Qom.
Within hours of the announcement of Montazeri's death on Sunday, some 50 buses full of Revolutionary Guard troops were reported to have deployed to Qom.
The reformist Web site Rahesabz.net reported that hundreds of Basijis and hard-line clerics chanted pro-regime slogans outside Montazeri's house, and then attacked "and tore up his funeral banners," according to Agence France-Presse.
For decades before Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution, Montazeri was a loud critic, exiled to a remote city, arrested several times and imprisoned for years by the pro-Western Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.
Before the revolution, he was appointed the representative in Iran of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who once called him the "fruit of my life" and made Montazeri his chosen successor.
However, Montazeri's determination to rebuke injustice wherever he found it prompted him to challenge Khomeini over the executions of thousands of political prisoners in 1988.
During the 10th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution in 1989, Montazeri delivered unprecedented critiques, saying that Iran's continuing the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s had been a costly mistake, not a "sacred" defense with God on Iran's side, as officials portrayed the war.
Montazeri further noted a "great distance" between the promises of the revolution and "what we have achieved," adding that the "denial of people's rights . . . delivered the most severe blows against the revolution to date."
Montazeri kept up his criticisms of Iran's Islamic system, called the velayat-e-faqih and headed by a supreme theologian, which he'd helped create. He frequently denigrated the far less consequential religious qualifications of Ayatollah Khamenei, and in 1997 was put under house arrest for six years for suggesting that the power of the supreme leader be curbed.
Back then, pro-regime vigilantes stormed Montazeri's theological school in Qom, raided his offices and shouted for his death.
Khamenei expressed his condolences on Sunday, but made clear his view that Montazeri had failed a "difficult and critical test" that had prompted Khomeini to oust him as heir and rewrite Iran's constitution so that a lesser theologian such as Khamenei would be eligible to be the supreme leader.
However, Khomeini's grandson, Hassan Khomeini, paid tribute to Montazeri's commitment to a principled and benevolent Islam. He said that he "spent many years of his honorable life on the path of advancing the high goals of Islam and the Islamic revolution," according to Iranian news reports.
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McClatchy Newspapers 2009