Cleric's funeral breathes life into Iran's protest movement

Clashes with security forces as huge crowds turn out to mourn religious leader who supported reform

The funeral of Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, the eminent cleric and champion of reform, turned into a mass protest in Iran yesterday as the vast crowd chanted slogans against the government and clashed on the streets with security forces.

The mourners, who reportedly numbered up to a million, had come out to observe a "national day of sorrow". They were on the streets of Qom at the urging of defeated presidential candidates Mirhossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, who lost to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in highly contentious elections earlier this year. Despite the authorities' efforts to limit attendance, reformist website Jaras reported mourners beating their chests and shouting: "Innocent Montazeri, your path will be continued even if the dictator should rain bullets on our heads." Reuters reported that tear gas had been released and shots fired near the city's main shrine.

The death of the 87-year-old Grand Ayatollah, who had become a trenchant critic of the ruling hardliners, has put the Iranian regime in a difficult position, caught between acknowledging his status as a patriarch of the 1979 Islamic Revolution and minimising his more recent criticism of the current leadership. State-controlled television carried only brief reports on the funeral, leaving out his official title of Grand Ayatollah, and a number of liberal publications, including the newspaper Parlemannews, were banned from attending.

Meanwhile, the ministry of culture and islamic guidance instructed news outlets to stress Mr Montazeri's discord with the late Grand Ayatollah Khomeini. Foreign news organisations were barred from visiting Qom.

A number of political activists claimed they had been contacted by the secret service and warned against making the journey. Nervertheless, streams of people, including entire families, were reported to have flocked to attend from across the country and the main road from the capital Tehran to Qom was blocked for hours due to heavy traffic, with a large crowd gathering outside the Ayatollah's home, where his body lay in a glass coffin. A large contingent of riot police were deployed in adjoining roads which were blocked off.

The protests still have the potential to swell as next Sunday –the seventh day of the traditional mourning period for the Grand Ayatollah – coincides with the ceremony to commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Hossein at Karbala,a highly emotive day in Shia Islam.

The authorities have stated that they wanted the crowd to have largely dispersed by then and warned against holding political rallies on the day. But those who went to Qom yesterday showed little interest in acquiescing. Reports emerged of stone-throwing mourners fighting with riot police when they started surrounding the Grand Ayatollah's home and members of the pro-government Basij militia tore down banners.

According to the conservative Ayande website, the Basij militiamen shouted: "Shame on you hypocrites, leave the city of Qom," while the mourners chanted back: "What happened to the oil money? It went to the Basijis."

Footage broadcast on the internet showed crowds chanting against Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, calling him a "murderer" and declaring his rule illegitimate. Opposition groups said a number of activists had been arrested. There were also disturbances elsewhere in the country.

In the months since Iran's disputed presidential elections in June, Mr Montazeri had issued stinging denunciations of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's government, saying that the Islamic republic was neither Islamic nor a republic, and that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's Supreme Leader, had lost his legitimacy. Two weeks ago, he said that the Basij militia, which has brutally suppressed opposition street rallies, was forsaking the "path of God" for the "path of Satan".

The Grand Ayatollah, who was suffering from poor health, died in his sleep. He was one of the early backers of Ayatollah Khomeini and was once designated to succeed him. But the two fell out over Iran's human rights record a few months before Khomeini died of cancer in 1989. In 1997 he clashed with Ayatollah Khamenei, whom he outranked in the religious hierarchy, after questioning his powers and the punitive measures he was taking against liberals.

Mr Khamenei offered condolences after the death of his rival, praising him as a as an outstanding jurist. However, he also referred to Mr Monatazeri's falling out with Grand Ayatollah Khomeini, saying he hoped God would forgive him for failing his "crucial test".

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
  • Get to the point
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Dublin (based in London)

£20000 - £25000 per annum + commission: SThree: Real Staffing's Pharmaceutical...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £25000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Are you great at building rela...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Swiss Banking and Finance

£20000 - £25000 per annum + Uncapped commission: SThree: Can you speak German,...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Executive - 6 month FTC - Central London

£25000 - £30000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An exciting opportunity f...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before