Tens of thousands of mourners turned the funeral of Iran’s leading dissident cleric into an anti-government protest today.
As the crowds chanted“death to the dictator” security forces clamped down in the holy city of Qom where massive crowds streamed in for the funeral rites.
One opposition website reported clashes outside the home of Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, who died yesterday aged 87.
Montazeri’s death pushed Iranian authorities into a difficult spot. They were obliged to pay respects to one of the patriarchs of the 1979 Islamic Revolution and the one-time heir apparent to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
But officials also worried that Montazeri’s memorials could become new rallying points for opposition demonstrations. The ayatollah broke with Iran’s clerical leadership and became a vehement critic, denouncing Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and calling the post-election crackdown the work of a dictatorship.
Mourners shouted “Death to the Dictator” and other slogans in displays of anger against Iran’s ruling establishment during the procession in Qom, a city of shrines and clerical seminaries.
Marchers held aloft black-rimmed portraits of Montazeri and green banners and wrist bands in a powerful show of support for the Green Movement of opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi, who attended the funeral along with another prominent protest leader, Mahdi Karroubi.
Footage posted on the web showed massive crowds chanting in the streets of Qom and beating their chests in a sign of mourning, as Montazeri’s body was carried around the city’s main shrine several times then taken to a nearby cemetery for burial alongside his son, who died in the early days of the Islamic Revolution.
Security forces clashed with mourners shouting slogans outside Montazeri’s house in Qom, and some protesters threw stones, the opposition website Norouz reported. It said an unspecified number of mourners were arrested. The report could not be independently confirmed, and witnesses did not report major clashes.
Thousands of mourners also marched in the cleric’s hometown of Najafabad, near the central city of Isfahan.
Authorities were concerned Montazeri’s death could set off a string of opposition protests linked to his funeral rites. Traditionally, memorial ceremonies are also held seven days after a death. Moreover, Montazeri’s seventh day homage will fall on one of the most important Shiite religious days, marking the martyrdom of a revered 7th century leader – giving even more fuel for a rally.
In another sign of efforts to silence opposition media, authorities ordered the closure of a small, liberal-leaning newspaper, Andishe-no, or New Thinking. The paper had only a limited circulation, but was one of the few reformist publications remaining. Iranian officials also have tried to block opposition Web pages and other sites.
Montazeri broke with the regime in the 1980s after claiming that the ruling clerics violated the ideals of the revolution by taking absolute power rather than serving as advisers to political leaders. He spent five years under house arrest and had only a minor role in political affairs after being released in 2003.
But the outrage after June’s disputed presidential election gave him a new voice that resonated with a younger generation. His most pivotal moments came in the summer when he denounced the “despotic” tactics and “crimes” of the ruling clerics – a bold step that encouraged protesters to break taboos about criticism of Khomeini’s successor, Supreme Leader Khamenei.
In demonstrations earlier this month, students shouted “Death to the dictator!” and burned pictures of Khamenei – an act that was almost unthinkable just a few months ago.
State television made only a passing reference to today’s funeral and did not broadcast any images. It mentioned, however, that mourners were chanting anti-government slogans.
Yesterday Khamenei praised Montazeri as a respected Islamic scholar, but noted his falling out with Khomeini and other leaders of the revolution.
Montazeri was one of the leaders of the revolution and he helped draft the nation’s new constitution, which was based on a concept called velayat-e faqih, or rule by Islamic jurists. That concept enshrined a political role for Islamic clerics in the new system.
But a deep ideological rift soon developed with Khomeini. Montazeri envisioned the Islamic experts as advisers to the government who should not have outright control to rule themselves. He was also among those clerics who believed the power of the supreme leader comes from the people, not from God.
Taking an opposing view, Khomeini and his circle of clerics consolidated absolute power.