BY ROBERT F. WORTH
The New York Times
Tens of thousands of people converged Monday on the funeral of Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri of Iran, news agencies reported, mourning the plain-spoken senior Shiite cleric who became a fierce critic of the country’s hard-line rulers.
Within hours of his death on Sunday, senior Iranian opposition figures, including the former presidential candidates Mir Hussein Moussavi and Mehdi Karroubi, began urging supporters to travel to Qum for his funeral. Mr. Moussavi attended the ceremony, which began at 9 a.m. local time, according to the Iranian Labor News Agency.
One Iranian Web site, Jaras, said that hundreds of thousands of people had come to Qum for the funeral, according to Reuters. The report could not be independently confirmed because foreign journalists have been barred from traveling to the holy city of Qum.
Iranian opposition Web sites said there had been clashes outside Mr. Montazeri’s home between security forces and mourners, who threw stones, The Associated Press reported. Another report said members of the Basij militia had torn down funeral banners at Mr. Montazeri’s home.
The Iranian authorities had been bracing for a showdown: there were reports on Sunday of riot police gathering there, and Iranian news sites said the government was planning to close the main highway between Tehran and Qum. In addition to the restrictions on journalists, a prominent government critic who was a student of Ayatollah Montazeri’s was arrested, according to the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. Word of the ayatollah’s death, reported in Iran’s state-run news media, set off small antigovernment demonstrations on Sunday.
The ayatollah, who had been in poor health, died of heart failure while sleeping at home in Qum, his son, Ahmad, told the official news agency IRNA. Once designated to succeed Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Montazeri stepped away from the country’s hard-line path in the 1980s. He later embraced the reform movement, which has come to view him as the spiritual father of its cause.
In Tehran, hundreds of protesters marched Sunday at Tehran University and the University of Science and Industry, chanting, “Montazeri is alive!”
An opposition Web site, Peykeiran, reported that demonstrators had set fire to two buses in the ayatollah’s hometown, Najafabad, and had clashed with riot police officers.
Large opposition protests are planned next Sunday on the religious holiday of Ashura. That will coincide with the seventh day after Ayatollah Montazeri’s death, an important marker in Shiite mourning rituals and one that could amplify the day’s potential for confrontation.
In the months since Iran’s disputed June presidential elections, Ayatollah Montazeri 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.”
Although the ayatollah’s death is a loss for the opposition movement, it is not a serious reversal, analysts said. He was isolated in his later years and had little direct contact with the movement’s supporters, who tend to be disaffected from the clergy. Still, his example of defiance and courage is likely to be an important legacy in the coming week, as protesters try to use the annual mourning ritual of Ashura to re-energize their defiance of the authorities.
“He died at exactly the right time,” said Rasool Nafisi, an Iran expert at Strayer University in Virginia. “He will be revered for his courage, and his example is likely to restore some of the clergy’s prestige.”
Ayatollah Montazeri was widely regarded as the most knowledgeable religious scholar in Iran, and that gave his criticisms special potency, analysts say. His religious credentials also prevented the authorities from silencing or jailing him. Last month, he stunned many in Iran and abroad by apologizing for his role in the 1979 takeover of the American Embassy in Tehran, which he called a mistake. Iran’s leaders celebrate the takeover every year as a foundational event of the Islamic revolution.
Ayatollah Montazeri, who long advocated greater civil liberties and women’s rights in Iran, was angered by the bloody crackdown that followed the June election and issued a series of remarkable broadsides against the authorities. “A political system based on force, oppression, changing people’s votes, killing, closure, arresting and using Stalinist and medieval torture, creating repression, censorship of newspapers, interruption of the means of mass communications, jailing the enlightened and the elite of society for false reasons, and forcing them to make false confessions in jail, is condemned and illegitimate,” he wrote.
Ayatollah Montazeri was born in 1922 in Najafabad to a peasant family. He studied under Ayatollah Khomeini in Qum and became involved in networks opposed to Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, which resulted in a four-year prison term in 1974. After the revolution in 1979, he played a central role in creating Iran’s new Constitution, in part because of his authorship on the doctrine of rule by clerics. But he argued that clerics should play an advisory role and not rule directly.
In the years after the revolution, Ayatollah Montazeri served as the Friday Prayer leader in Qum and as a deputy to Ayatollah Khomeini, who designated him as his successor in 1985. Although he lacked a large popular following, the senior ayatollah viewed him as a loyal supporter of the concept of clerical rule.
But Ayatollah Montazeri gradually began to move away from his mentor’s policies. In 1989, after a mass execution of political prisoners, he published an article condemning the decision and calling for a “political and ideological reconstruction.” He also mocked Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa calling for the killing of the novelist Salman Rushdie, saying, “People in the world are getting the idea that our business in Iran is just murdering people.”
Ayatollah Khomeini quickly denounced Ayatollah Montazeri, who was stripped of his post and even his title as grand ayatollah. The state news media began to refer to him dismissively as a “simple-minded” cleric. In 1997, he was placed under house arrest after criticizing Ayatollah Khomeini’s successor as supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. The restriction ended in 2003 after Iranian legislators called on Iran’s president then, the reformist cleric Mohammad Khatami, to release him.
Ayatollah Montazeri continued to teach and to write, championing the reformist cause and calling for greater democracy. “Independence is being free of foreign intervention, and freedom is giving people the freedom to express their opinions,” he wrote recently. “Not being put in prison for every protest one utters.”
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