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Ayatollah calls for writers' execution

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A DEMAND by a senior ayatollah for the execution of two student authors of a play mocking Shia Islam has reignited the struggle between religious traditionalists and moderate reformers in post-revolution Iran.

The subject of the controversy might seem insignificant - a play that appeared in a student magazine at Tehran University, of which just 200 copies have been printed. But it bodes to become a domestic version of the Salman Rushdie affair, once more pitting reformers against conservative clerics in the run-up to next February's parliamentary elections.

At the forefront of the religious campaign is Ayatollah Hossein Mazaheri, who recent-ly reaffirmed the fatwa against Mr Rushdie, disavowed last year by the reformist government of President Mohammad Khatami. Denouncing the play's "filthy contents" Ayatollah Mazaheri demanded the young writers be put to death "under the sacred law of Islam".

Yesterday, 2,000 demonstrators rallied outside the gates of the university, demanding the execution of the "mercenary pen-holders" and the dismissal of the ministers of culture and education, both reviled by conservatives for their more pluralist views. Forced to respond, President Khatami has described the work as blasphemy. But he accused the clerical lobby of inciting controversy for their own "specific aims and ends".

The real significance of the episode is political - rekindling fierce debate over the role of a secular and free press in a country whose supreme authority is religious, as well as fears that the row over the play could lead to a fresh round of street unrest. Student riots in the summer in Tehran, provoked by the closure of the outspoken newspaper Salam, left at least three dead and 1,200 wounded. Earlier this month another reformist paper, Neshat, was closed for allegedly insulting the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.