Iran General NewsIran braces for protests as up to 1m attend...

Iran braces for protests as up to 1m attend funeral of reformist cleric

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ImageThe Guardian: Hundreds of thousands gather in Qom for Ayatollah Montazeri's funeral just as traditional day of protest looms guardian.co.uk

Hundreds of thousands gather in Qom for Ayatollah Montazeri's funeral just as traditional day of protest looms

Robert Tait and Matthew Weaver

ImageHundreds of thousand of mourners, many chanting anti-government slogans, reportedly gathered in the Iranian city of Qom for the funeral today of leading reformist cleric Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri.

Defying a heavy presence of the security forces the funeral became a rally point for another protest against the disputed re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. There were reports of clashes after mourners chanted against Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Montazeri, who died early yesterday morning aged 87, was buried at the Masoumeh shrine, one of the holiest in Shia Islam just before 7am (GMT).

Hundreds of thousands of people had turned out for the funeral, according to Reuters citing the website Jaras. Others reporters said up to a million mourners gathered.

Mourners travelled from as far away as Isfahan and Najafabad, Montazeri's birthplace. Reformist websites reported that the road between Tehran and Qom was clogged with motorists heading to the funeral. Riot police were deployed throughout Qom in preparation for a mass turnout of anti-government demonstrators, while security forces surrounded Montazeri's house.

YouTube footage showed Montazeri's supporters gathering at home his home where his body lay in a glass case.

The reformist website Rah-e Sabz reported that some political activists had been contacted by intelligence agents and warned that they would face arrest if they tried to attend the funeral.

Montazeri, who had long been banished from Iran's theocratic hierarchy, had emerged as a spiritual leader for the opposition Green Movement after denouncing last June's re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as fraudulent and the subsequent crackdown as un-Islamic.

Since the poll, he had been in regular contact with the defeated reformist candidates: Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi.

Once seen as heir apparent to the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, spiritual leader of the 1979 Islamic revolution, Montazeri was sidelined and defrocked in 1988 after criticising the mass execution of political prisoners.

News of his death, attributed by his doctor to a combination of old age and chronic heart and prostate conditions, triggered fresh dissent on Iran's university campuses, the focal point of repeated post-election clashes between students and security forces.

Noisy protests were reported at Tehran's Sharif University and at the Science and Industry University, where students held up Montazeri's picture and chanted: "Today is mourning day, the green nation is the chief mourner."

Montazeri's death could hardly have come at a worse time for Iran's Islamic regime, which has sought to isolate Mousavi and Karroubi as puppets of foreign "enemies".

It came just three days into the Shia mourning month of Muharram, during which the opposition had already pledged to stage a series of demonstrations. Worse still, the seventh day of his death – a special mourning occasion in Shia Islam – will coincide with next Sunday's Ashura ceremony, marking the martyrdom at Karbala of Hossein, Shia Islam's third imam, who is regarded as a symbol of struggle against oppressive rule. Both the government and the opposition had identified this year's Ashura event as a potential flashpoint even before Montazeri's death. The ceremony has a central place in Iran's revolutionary folklore. Ashura demonstrations against the shah in 1978 are widely thought to have played a pivotal role in toppling the former monarch's regime.

"This is something the Iranian government is quite worried about," said Hossein Bastani, an Iranian analyst based in France. "On the seventh day of Ayatollah Montazeri's death, people will be gathering to commemorate him on the same day as Ashura. Iranian internet forums, websites and social networking sites are all talking about it.

"This will become a nightmare for the Islamic regime. Muharram for the Shias is the month of martyrdom and protest against cruel government, and at the moment inside Iran, many consider the Islamic republic to be the most cruel enemy of Islam and of the people."

The regime's nervousness was evident from official pronouncements. The state news agency, Irna, announced Montazeri's death while omitting his official title of grand ayatollah, while the culture and Islamic guidance ministry told newspapers to stress his disagreements with Khomeini and ignore his political views.

Khamenei – who has become the target of recent demonstrations – also stressed Montazeri's differences with Khomeini. "At the final phase of the imam's [Khomeini's] gracious life, there had been a difficult and challenging test [for Montazeri] which I hope will be covered by God's lenience," he said.

Montazeri spent six years under house arrest after 1997 when he criticised Khamenei as over-powerful and questioned his qualifications as a source of religious guidance.

Even after the end of his sentence, he rarely left his modest house in a quiet lane in Qom. But his views remained sharply critical. Interviewed by the Guardian in 2006, he accused the regime of encouraging people to hate religion by "misusing Islam". "From the beginning of the revolution, we have been chanting slogans of independence, liberty, Islamic republic," he said. "The complaint I have is why the slogans we have been chanting since then and are still chanting haven't been fulfilled."

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