Thousands head for Montazeri funeral

Thousands of mourners converged on the Shiite holy city of Qom for the funeral on Monday of Iran’s top dissident cleric Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, opposition sources said.

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Montazeri, 87, a fierce critic of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, died of an illness on Saturday night and is to be buried in Qom, said his office in the central city where he was based.

“He was diabetic and had been using insulin for years… He had also some lung problems and asthma. In fact he was suffering from several diseases,” his doctor told state television.

The grand ayatollah was an inspiration to rights advocates and pro-reform groups and was considered by his followers as the highest living authority of Shiite Islam in Iran.

Key opposition leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi called for a public day of mourning on Monday and for their supporters to take part in the funeral, in a joint statement on Mousavi’s website, Kaleme.org.

“Following a call by some grand ayatollahs to mourn the death… we announce tomorrow, Monday, December 21, a day of public mourning,” they said.

“We invite all saddened religious people mourning the death of this pride of the Shiite world to take part in the funeral of this legend of endeavour, jurisprudence and spirituality.”

Upon the news of his death, students gathered at Tehran University to recite verses from the Koran.

The opposition website Rahesabz.net said opposition supporters also called a gathering to mourn the cleric at Tehran’s Mohseni square on Sunday, adding that “sporadic gatherings” were seen in the capital.

“Thousands of people from Isfahan, (Montazeri’s hometown of) Najafabad and Shiraz began travelling by road to Qom for the funeral,” according to the site of the parliamentary opposition, Parlemannews.ir.

Meanwhile, Internet connection slowed to a crawl, as has been the case whenever the authorities anticipate opposition demonstrations.

Montazeri is to be buried in the shrine of Masoumeh, a revered Shiite figure, in Qom, his office told AFP. Foreign media have been banned from covering the ceremony.

Once designated as the successor to the founder of the 1979 Islamic revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Montazeri came out in bold support of the Iranian opposition when it rejected the re-election of Ahmadinejad in June.

Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei offered condolences to his family although Montazeri was also critical of him and questioned his credentials for being the country’s highest religious authority.

Montazeri had long been critical of the concentration of power in the hands of the supreme leader and called for changes to the constitution, which he helped draw up after the 1979 Islamic revolution, to limit his authority.

The grand ayatollah also often criticised hardliner Ahmadinejad over his domestic and foreign policies, including Tehran’s nuclear standoff with the West.

He called on other leading clerics to break their silence over rights abuses during the government’s crackdown on opposition supporters protesting the presidential election, which they charge was rigged in Ahmadinejad’s favour.

Montazeri, one of the chief architects of the Islamic republic, was a student and close ally of Khomeini, whom he was set to succeed.

But the cleric fell from grace in the late 1980s after he became too openly critical of political and cultural restrictions, most notably Iran’s treatment of political prisoners and opposition groups.

Montazeri resigned months before Khomeini’s death in 1989, and was told by Khomeini to stay out of politics and focus instead on teaching in Qom. Unfazed by such warnings, he continued to speak out.

The grand ayatollah also questioned the theological credentials of Khamenei. This was branded as treason, and in 1997 he was placed under house arrest.

Freed after five years on health grounds during the reformist presidency of Mohammad Khatami, the grand ayatollah vowed that he would continue to speak out in defence of freedom and justice.

In his latest reaction to the post-vote crackdown on protests, Montazeri slammed “the killing of innocent people, the arrest of political activists and freedom-seekers as well as their illegal show trials.”

Iran’s state news agency IRNA branded him as the “clerical figure of rioters” — the term used by pro-government media for post-vote protesters — and dropped his clerical title of grand ayatollah in its early reports.