[TEHRAN BUREAU] Since protests erupted in Iran after its disputed Presidential election, a growing number of influential Shia clerics have made statements in favor of the protesters.
Grand Ayatollahs in Support of Protesters (in alphabetical order)
Though an exact list is hard to come by, experts agree that there are only a few dozen Grand Ayatollahs now living. Shia clerics earn the title of Grand Ayatollah through years of study, publishing papers and books on theological subjects, and gathering thousands or even hundreds of thousands of followers. Literally translated, grand ayatollah, or marja taqlid, means “source of emulation.”
Grand Ayatollah Abdolkarim Mousavi Ardabili: “We do not have to pacify the protest by force,” said Ardabili in a meeting in late June with the Guardian Council, according to widely-quoted story from the Iranian Labour News Agency. “Let the people decide who is right and who is not.” Ardabili was a close and senior aid to Ayatollah Khomeini, and was the head of the Judicial system of Iran until Khomeini,’s death. He also established Mofid University.
Grand Ayatollah Bayat-Zanjani issued a fatwa July 12 calling the elections illegitimate. On July 6 he said, “Every healthy mind casts doubt on the way the election was held… “More regrettable are post-election large-scale arrests, newspaper censorship and website filtering, and above all the martyrdom of our countrymen whom they describe as rioters,” according to a story in the Los Angeles Times. Bayat-Zanjani’s Farsi-language website has recently been filled with almost daily statements like these. Bayat-Zanjani is a former chancellor of Tehran University.
Grand Ayatollah Lotfollah Safi Golpayegani called the election results announced by the government “a grand lie,” according to a June 30 story in Le Monde. Golpayegani, who was the first Secretary-General of the Guardian Council after the Revolution, met with some members of the Council and reportedly expressed regrets for what had happened.
Grand Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri: A pro-Ahmadinijad website claimed July 13 that Montazeri suffers “severe memory disorders” and asks who has written statements attributed to the Grand Ayatollah. Montazeri responded by posting a photograph of a statement in his own handwriting on his website. On July 12, Montazeri wrote a fatwa calling the regime “un-Islamic.” He went on to say: “Injustice is the intentional opposition to the teachings of religion, the foundations of reasonableness, and rationality, and the national accords and consensus that have become the laws of the land. The ruler who opposes these is no longer qualified to rule.” He posted a July 8 statement to: “Protest the improper performance of official repression.” He has also called for three days of mourning for the death of Neda Agha-Soltan and other protesters. He has also said that, “No one in their right mind” could believe the election results,” in a statement issued June 16. Montazeri’s support for this June’s protesters is important but hardly surprising. Once the hand-picked successor to former Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini, Montazeri lost favor after protesting the executions of political prisoners in the late 1980s and spent years under house arrest in the holy city of Qom after criticizing the current Supreme Leader.
Grand Ayatollah Yousef Saanei: “Everyone in the past days witnessed the attacks… that maimed, murdered, and caged any number of children,” said Saanei according to a translation of a July 3 statement on his website. Saanei had already expressed his “sympathy with the families of the victims of the recent disasters.” A confidante of Ayatollah Khomeini, Saanei retired as the head of the Guardian Council in 1988. More recently, he issued a fatwa in which he declared suicide bombing as haram and a ‘terrorist act.’
Grand Ayatollah Jalaleddin Taheri called the re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad “illegitimate” and “tyrannical,” according to a July 1 story from Radio Free Europe. He also said the regime’s actions are sending the Islamic Republic “to a museum.” Like Montazeri, Taheri is also a powerful cleric with a history of protest. One of Ayatollah Khomeini’s close friends and former Friday prayer leader of the city of Isfahan, he resigned his post in 2002 in protest over government corruption, the house-arrest of Grand Ayatollah Montazeri, and the actions of militias he called club-wielding vigilantes.
Relatively Neutral Grand Ayatollahs (alphabetical order)
Grand Ayatollah Nasser Makarem Shirazi: “Our Islamic ceremonies and our rules and educations and Iranians do not let us to pollute the unity-making Friday prayers with disunity-making slogans,” he said in a July 19 statement on his website in response to protests the day before. Shirazi called for “national conciliation,” in a June 25 story on Iran’s state-sponsored Press TV, saying that: “Definitively, something must be done to ensure that there are no embers burning under the ashes, and that hostilities, antagonism and rivalries are transformed into amity and cooperation among all parties.” Makarem Shirazi was appointed to the first council of Representatives and helped write Iran’s constitution, according this website. He is also a member of the Qom Seminary Teachers Society, which has congratulated Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on his reelection as president, according to a July 4 story in the Tehran Times.
Grand Ayatollah Ali Hussein Sistani has not commented on the election. However, he refused to meet with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad during the president’s 2008 visit to Iraq, though Sistani has reportedly been willing to meet with other Iranian figures including Ayatollah Rafsanjani and Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani. Though Sistani lives in Iraq and rarely comments on political issues, many commentators call him one of the most influential of living Ayatollahs.
Grand Ayatollahs Against the Protesters
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Hoseini Khamenei: “It is a mistake to believe that a limited group of people, in Tehran only — setting fire to rubbish bins, to public property, to motorbikes, to their cars, to their banks — are people. These are not people,” said the Supreme Leader, according to a July 21 story in the New York Times. Though former President Khamenei was not a grand ayatollah before he was chosen as the Supreme Leader, he is now the nation’s highest religious authority.
Ayatollahs in Support of Protesters (alphabetical order)
It takes years of study at one of the recognized Shia seminaries to become an ayatollah. The word translates to “sign of God.” There may be more than 1,000 people who have attained the rank of ayatollah.
Ayatollah Haj Shaykh Ebrahimi Amini: “Errors had occurred” during the election, said Amini in a June 12 on KhabarOnline. He called on all four Presidential candidates to “come together and give help and cooperation.” Amini is leader of Friday prayers of Qom and a politician in the Assembly of Experts.
Ayatollah Hadi Ghaffari:“Young people are not praying anymore, whose fault is that? It is your fault Mr. Khamenei, it’s your fault for placing us in the same line as that lunatic Ahmadinejad,” said Ghaffari in video widely distributed on the internet. “Ahmadinejad is nobody, you should congregate with us instead of him.” Ghaffari is a hard-liner and a reported former leader of the Iranian Ansar-e Hezbollah.
Ayatollah Hashemzadeh Harisi: “Distrust of the people is a fact and it must be confessed ,” he said, according to a July 9 story on an opposition website. Harisi is a member of the Assembly of Experts.
Ayatollah Kharazi is reported to have said the Supreme Leader is responsible for the bloodshed that has followed the contested election, according to a July 19 on mowjcamp.com, a website affiliated with the opposition.
Ayatollah Reza Ostadi issued a sermon July 10 criticizing the Ahmadinejad government and resigning his position as leader of Friday Prayers in the holy city of Qom, according to a story on the website www.mowj.ir. Ostadi is a member of the assembly of experts.
Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani: Leading Friday prayers at Tehran University, Rafsanjani called on the government to free detainees and ease restraints on the press. He also recently met with the family of detainees. Rafsanjani’s organization Kargozaran said in a statement that “We declare that the result is unacceptable due to the unhealthy voting process, massive electoral fraud and the siding of the majority of the Guardian Council with a specific candidate,” according to a July 6 story in the Los Angeles Times. The former President and the head of Iran Council of Experts, Rafsanjani is widely credited with putting the Supreme Leader in power two decades ago. He supported Mousavi’s run for President and has been widely speculated to be maneuvering behind to scene to support Mousavi’s opposition since the election.
Ayatollah Jafar Sobhani is rumored to have said that propaganda by state media is disallowed by the religion, according to posts on Twitter starting July 20 that also call him a grand ayatollah. Sobhani made less pointed comments in a June meeting with the Guardian Council, asking all of the candidates in the contested election to abide by the law, according to a June 23 story from state-run IRNA. Sobhani is usually a vocal conservative. He has recently issued statements in favor of separation between men and women.
Ayatollah Sayyed Hossein Mousavi Tabrizi praised Rafsanjani’s sermon according to a July 18 story on state-sponsored PressTV. He also spoke to the Associated Press saying, “People were peacefully protesting election results and the response to that should not be the bullet… The harsh crackdown was illogical. They could have handled it without any blood being shed,” according to a July 8 story. He has also said that, “Having (political) parties in any country is a prelude to establishing and strengthening democracy,” according to a June 6 story on Iran’s state-sponsored Press TV. He repeats his critique in a June 18 Farsi-language story on parlemannews.com. He has also declared that the Guardian Council was biased and that people have a right to demonstrate in an interview with www.sanyehnews.com, a pro-Ahmadinejad Web site. Tabrizi was chief prosecutor under Ayatollah Khomeini and the leader of the Association of Researchers and Teachers of Qom.
Ayatollahs Making Relatively Neutral Statements
Ayatollah Abdollah Javadi Amoli: At Friday Prayers in Qom, he said that if a person believes that he was oppressed, he must react to the oppression through legal channels, according to a story in the Tehran Times. Kayhan newspaper has cut Ayatollah Amoli’s daily column, which has been a part of the newspaper for years, according to a July 5 story on Tabnak. According to a June 22 in the Tehran Times, he said that, “No Muslim would set on fire others’ homes and these (the rioters) are surely foreigners. Amoli was the leader of Ayatollah Khomeini’s 1988 mission to Russia, according to coverage in the New York Times.
Ayatollah Haeri-Shirazi wrote a letter to the Supreme Leader June 24. Some commentators call the letter careful but challenging. The letter mentions Iran’s first president Abolhassan Banisadr, who was impeached and exiled because he allegedly moved against the ruling clerics.
Ayatollahs Against the Protesters
Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati: “The British Embassy had a presence and some people were arrested,” said Jannati of the protests, according to a July 4 story from the BBC. “Well, inevitably they will be put on trial. They have made confessions too.” As Secretary-General of the Guardian Council, Jannati helped approve the announced election results June 26.
Ayatollah Mohammad Reza Mahdavi Kani: “The president-elect is the president of the entire Iranian nation,” said Kani, according to a June 16 story in the Tehran Times. “The most essential issue for the country, today and every day, is maintaining unity and following the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution.” Former Prime Minister Kani is head of the conservative Combatant Clergy Association, not to be confused with the pro-reform Association of Combatant Clerics.
Ayatollah Mohammad Emami-Kashani: At Friday Prayers in Tehran July 10, Kashani softened his tone against the protesters, though still effectively belittled their concerns. “The Parliament should rectify the election code of conduct in whatever way it deems necessary,” said Emami-Kashani, according to state sponsored Press TV. Earlier Emami-Kashani said that, “The enemy has focused on the election because it wants to find an excuse to downplay the Iranian nation’s participation in the election,” as leader of Tehran’s Friday prayers June 12, according to state-sponsored Press TV. “So a massive turnout in the elections is a response to the enemy and will serve Islam,” He is a member of the Assembly of Experts.
Ayatollah Seyyed Ahmad Khatami: “I call on the officials of the judicial branch to deal severely and ruthlessly with the leaders of the agitations, whose fodder comes from America and Israel, so that everyone learns a lesson from it,” Khatami said as he led Friday prayers in Tehran, according June 26 story on CBS News. Khatami also said that a protester who engages in “destructive acts” could be considered a mohareb, or someone who wages war against God. Khatami is a member of the Assembly of Experts.
Ayatollah Morteza Moqtadaei called on the opposition to “choose silence to preserve the system,” according to a July 8 story from the Associated Press. He is deputy chairman of the Qom Seminary Teachers Society.
Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi-Shahroudi: “Those who co-operate with such websites and television channels will face prosecution,” said Shahroudi, according to a July 5 story from the BBC. Shahroudi is the head of Iran’s judiciary. In 2002 he placed a moratorium on stoning as a form of capital punishment.
Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah Yazdi: “Anybody resisting against the ruling system will be broken,” said Mesbah Yazdi according to a July 20 story from Associated Press. He also wrote July 14 that the Supreme Leader is accountable only to God. He also told a June 22 gathering of Revolutionary Guard commanders that: “Do not be worried about the events and earthquakes that have occurred. Know that God created this world as a test,” according to a story in the Associated Press. “The supreme leader holds a great many of the blessings God has given us and at a time of such uncertainties our eyes must turn to him.” Mesbah Yazdi is a member of the Guardian Council and is believed to be President Ahmadinejad’s spiritual mentor.
Statements by Clerical and Governmental Groups
The Association of Combatant Clerics: This reformist group called for a referendum on the legitimacy of the government in a statement issued July 20 on their website. The Association should not be confused with the more conservative Combatant Clergy Association. Former President and reformist Mohammad Khatami, who also calls for a national referendum, is the chairman of the Association’s central council.
Association of Researchers and Teachers of Qom: “The voice of people seeking justice was marred by violence which unfortunately left several dead and wounded and hundreds arrested,” said the clerics in a July 4 statement. “How can one accept the legitimacy of the election just because the Guardian Council says so? Can one say that the government born out of these infringements is a legitimate one?” The Association is led by reform cleric Ayatollah Tabrizi, who has made many statements in favor of the protesters.
The Guardian Council of the Constitution approved the announced election results and ruled out further elections on June 26. The Council had earlier pointed out a number of “errors” in the announced election results on June 23. The 12-member Council includes six clerics selected by the Supreme Leader including Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati; Sadegh Larijani, the brother of the politician Ali Larijani; and Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah Yazdi.
The Expediency Discernment Council: This supervisory body passed a motion banning two members of the Guardian Council from serving simultaneously in both the executive branch of government as a minister and also as a member of the Guardian Council. Both council members are currently members of the cabinet of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The Expediency Council is led by Ayatollah and former President Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani.
Qom Seminary Teachers Society has congratulated Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on his reelection as president, according to a July 4 story in the Tehran Times. However, the Teachers Society’s endorsement of the announced results has not been reported by Iran’s other state-sponsored media outlets that would normally spread the news. The powerful group approves a list of marjas, or grand ayatollahs, in Qom. Its members include Ayatollah Ebrahim Amini, who has made statements critical of the election results, in addition to clerics that have spoken in favor of the regime such as Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah Yazdi, Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami, and Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati.