Iranian dissident cleric’s funeral draws huge crowds

Tens of thousands of opposition supporters took to the streets Monday in Iran’s main theological center and clashed with pro-government militiamen during the funeral of the country’s top dissident cleric, Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri.

The demonstration in the city of Qom was significant both for its important location and its merging of several currents in Iran’s population: It drew older supporters of Montazeri from smaller cities and towns in the countryside as well as young middle-class urbanites from the capital.

Mourners moved in a massive stream from Montazeri’s home to the shrine of Fatemeh Masoumeh, where the late cleric was laid to rest. They chanted anti-government slogans and carried green ribbons and banners signifying allegiance to the opposition movement that sprang out of the disputed presidential election in June.

As the ceremony concluded, Montazeri’s son, Ahmad, asked mourners to disperse peacefully out of respect for the family. But there were a few reports of clashes between people in the crowd and at least some of the ubiquitous security forces that had flooded the city, 90 miles south of Tehran.

According to reformist news websites, pro-government militiamen pulled down a funerary banner honoring Montazeri, who died Saturday at age 87, and physically prevented his supporters from holding a smaller evening ceremony at a Qom mosque.

Hundreds of government supporters gathered near Montazeri’s home and chanted slogans in support of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, according to news websites. Uniformed law enforcement forces had to intervene to prevent altercations between government supporters and mourners.

Official Iranian news media gave limited coverage to the death and funeral of Montazeri, who was prominent in the Islamic Revolution three decades ago but later had a falling-out with its leaders. Authorities did not grant foreign media based in Tehran permission to travel to Qom for the ceremonies.

Montazeri’s death coincides with a key period on the Shiite calendar, the mourning of the 7th century Imam Hussein, when confrontations between protesters and the government had already been predicted.

“It was a very timely demise,” said an aide to opposition leader Mehdi Karroubi, who attended the funeral along with fellow presidential candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi. He asked that his name not be published. “The grand ayatollah passed away at the zenith of his reputation among middle-class and educated people of Iran.”

Supporters and opposition activists began pouring into the shrine city Sunday, many arriving from Montazeri’s hometown of Najafabad.

From 8 a.m. Monday, cries of “Ya Hossein! Mir-Hossein!” in support of Mousavi and “Death to the dictator!” could be heard near Montazeri’s home, according to witnesses and amateur video posted on the Internet.

Wrapped in black cloth and mounted atop a truck also draped in black, Montazeri’s body emerged about 9 a.m. to be taken slowly to the shrine, witnesses said. He was buried next to his late son, Mohammad, who was killed in a bomb blast during the early years after Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution.

The boos of chanting mourners overwhelmed official slogans emanating from nearby loudspeakers that condemned the United States and praised Khamenei, the supreme leader, the witnesses said.

“The green nation of Iran is in mourning,” chanted those in attendance, many dressed in green and holding green ribbons. “The oppressed Montazeri is before God.”

Some of the slogans were clearly directed not just at President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who won the disputed election, but at Khamenei, the nation’s ultimate authority.

“Oppressor,” they chanted, accusingly, “whether king or leader.”

Perhaps the most striking image was the contrast between Montazeri’s traditional supporters from smaller cities and towns and young female mourners from Tehran. Instead of being swathed in black chadors, the urbanites wore colorful and trendy waistcoats and attempted to enter the shrine grounds in violation of religious traditions.

Witnesses said many of the protesters spoke in the sing-song dialects of central Iranian cities. At a restaurant near Montazeri’s house, villagers from his native area voiced delight that women from the capital were mourning their beloved ayatollah.

Montazeri, an architect of the 1979 revolution and the designated successor to the Islamic Republic’s founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, fell out of the inner circle in the late 1980s after he criticized the killing of political prisoners.

He eventually became Iran’s leading clerical dissident and, in recent months, began vocally questioning the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic and Khamenei.

Observers said he had changed his views dramatically over the last decade, and even said he had been wrong about core issues of Islamic law, politics and faith.

Supporters of the opposition predicted that Montazeri’s death would eventually help their cause.

“I think his demise has galvanized the movement,” said Mohammad Aghazadeh, a reformist journalist who attended the ceremony.

“It is gaining roots,” Aghazadeh said. “People from the middle class who are not mosque-goers or pilgrims of Qom are here among the youth. It shows the green movement is spreading among all walks of society.”

Mostaghim is a special correspondent.