Iran General NewsIran replaces reformist cleric for annual sermon

Iran replaces reformist cleric for annual sermon

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ImageAP: Iran has replaced a reformist, pro-opposition cleric with a hard-liner to lead the prayer service on a key anti-Israel day this week, according to a state radio report Wednesday. The Associated Press

By NASSER KARIMI

ImageTEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iran has replaced a reformist, pro-opposition cleric with a hard-liner to lead the prayer service on a key anti-Israel day this week, according to a state radio report Wednesday.

The announcement is a blow to Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the powerful former president who sided with the opposition in Iran's post-election turmoil.

It is also an apparent move to sideline Rafsanjani ahead of anti-government rallies on Quds Day, called for by opposition activists. Authorities have warned they would crack down heavily on any anti-government protests on the occasion, which usually falls on the last Friday of the Muslim holy fasting month of Ramadan.

Rafsanjani traditionally holds the sermon on Quds Day — an annual event that showcases Iran's anti-Israeli stance and is marked by government-organized rallies in support of the Palestinians and against Israel. Quds is Arabic for Jerusalem.

State radio said Ahmad Khatami — a hardline cleric and supporter of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — will lead the Friday prayers on Sept. 18. Ahmadinejad is also to deliver a speech before the ceremony at Tehran University campus, the radio reported.

In the crisis that gripped Iran following the June 12 vote that re-elected Ahmadinejad for a second term, Rafsanjani sided with Ahmadinejad's main reformist challenger, opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi.

The pro-reform camp claims Mousavi was the rightful winner of the presidential election and that the government faked the balloting in Ahmadinejad's favor.

Since the vote, thousands of oppositions poured onto the streets to rally against the alleged vote fraud but were met with a heavy government crackdown.

The opposition says at least 72 protesters were killed in the violence that followed the election, while government officials maintain that only 36 died in the unrest — the worst in Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution that brought the current regime to power. Thousands were arrested, and the regime's opponents have charged some detainees were tortured to death in prison.

Customarily on Quds Day, Tehran residents gather for pro-Palestinian rallies in various parts of the city, march through the streets and later converge for the prayers ceremony.

A statement on Mousavi's Web site said he would also participate in a pro-Palestinian rally on Friday — a likely signal to opposition activists to come out in huge numbers and take part in the opposition rally.

The announcement also raises concerns, setting the stage for possible clashes between police and plainclothes security agents and Mousavi supporters.

Another former reformist president and Mousavi-backer, Mohammad Khatami, is also expected to participate in the rally, the semiofficial ILNA news agency reported Wednesday.

If the opposition takes to the streets in large numbers Friday, it will be its first mass gathering since July 17, when thousands came out after Friday prayer led by Rafsanjani and clashed with security troops.

The country's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has final say on all state matters, last week warned the oppositions against using Quds Day for other purpose than demonstrating solidarity with the Palestinians.

The pro-Palestinian ceremony was established in 1979 by the leader of the Islamic Revolution and founder of present-day Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

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