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".