Middle East

Iranians Flock to Mourn Cleric Ali Montazeri

Thousands of Mourners attend the funeral procession of Iranian cleric Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri in the holy city of Qom on Dec. 21. (Photo: AFP/ Getty Images)

Tens of thousands of mourners gathered in the Iranian city of Qom following the death of 87-year-old reformist cleric Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, causing a security nightmare for authorities. News of his death triggered fresh dissent on Iran's university campuses, the focal point of repeated post-election clashes between students and security forces.

Some reports said up to a million mourners had gathered, although this was impossible to verify because of the heavy media restrictions in Iran. Clashes reportedly broke out at the funeral, but the scale of the confrontation is unclear.

Footage broadcast on the internet showed crowds chanting against Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, calling him a "murderer" and saying his rule was illegitimate. Other video showed thousands of mourners beating their chests and chanting: "Oppressed Montazeri, you are with God now."

The Islamic Republic News Agency, the official news agency of Iran, did not use the ayatollah title in its initial reports of Montazeri's death and referred to him as the "clerical figure of rioters."

Montazeri was buried at the Shrine of Fatimah al-Ma'sumah, one of the most revered female saints in Shia Islam.

According to the U.K. paper The Guardian, thousands traveled from as far away as Isfahan and Najafabad, Montazeri's birthplace. Reformist websites reported that the road between Tehran and Qom was clogged with motorists heading to the funeral. Riot police were deployed throughout Qom in preparation for a mass turnout of anti-government demonstrators, while security forces surrounded Montazeri's house.

Additionally, on Saturday, military prosecutors alleged that prison guards tortured to death at least three student protesters in July, contradicting months of denials by top leaders. The reversal is one of the biggest blows to Tehran's credibility since government protests first erupted six months ago.

Either development, by itself, would provide a rallying point for the opposition, which claims last summer's presidential election was a fraud and is demanding a political overhaul. Together, they represent the widening array of challenges facing the Iranian regime.

Montazeri was best known as the one-time designated successor to the revolution's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini, with whom he had a falling out in 1989 over government policies that Montazeri claimed infringed on freedom and denied people's rights.

For almost three decades, Montazeri had been one of the main critics of the Islamic Republic's domestic and foreign policy. He had also been an active advocate of civil rights and women's rights in Iran.

Montazeri has criticized Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for his economic preformance, the rate of inflation, and the 50 percent increase in housing costs. He has also called Ahmadinejad's nuclear policies aggressive.

Montazeri again spoke out against Ahmadinejad on June 16, during the protests against his reelection, and called for three days of public mourning for the death of Neda Agha-Soltan and others killed during the June 22 protests.

In November, on the day before the 30th anniversary celebration of the Iran hostage crisis, Montazeri said that the occupation of the American embassy in 1979 had been a mistake.

The seventh day of his death will coincide with next Sunday's Ashura ceremony, marking the martyrdom at Karbala of Hossein, Shia Islam's third imam, who is regarded as a symbol of struggle against oppressive rule.

Ms. Teri Schure is the founder of Worldpress.org, lectures on issues pertaining to publishing, and is a consultant in the magazine, web development and marketing industries.

Check out Teri Schure’s blog The Teri Tome.