Tens of thousands of government opponents packed Iran’s main Islamic prayer service Friday, chanting “freedom, freedom” and other slogans as their top clerical backer Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani delivered a sermon bluntly criticizing the country’s leadership over the crackdown on election protests.
Outside, police and pro-government Basiji militiamen fired tear gas and charged thousands of protesters who chanted “death to the dictator” and called on President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to resign. Dozens were arrested, piled in trucks and taken away, witnesses said.
Plainclothes Basijis stood in front of a line of riot police and pumped canisters of tear gas, which young protesters with green bandanas over their faces kicked away across the pavement, away from the crowds. Some set a bonfire in the street and waved their hands in the air in victory signs.
The opposition aimed to turn the Friday prayers at Tehran University into a show of their continued strength despite heavy government suppression since the disputed June 12 presidential election.
Opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi, who claims to have won the election, sat among the worshippers, attending for the first time since the turmoil began. Many of the tens of thousands at the prayers wore headbands or wristbands in his campaign color green, or had green prayer rugs, in a crowd that filled the former soccer field where prayers are held and spilling into nearby streets.
In his sermon broadcast live on radio nationwide, Rafsanjani reprimanded the clerical leadership for not listening to people’s complaints over the election, which was declared a victory for Ahmadinejad despite opposition claims of fraud. “Doubt has been created ,” Rafsanjani said. “There is a large portion of the wise people who say they have doubts. We need to take action to remove this doubt.”
Rafsanjani couched his sermon in calls for unity in support of Iran’s Islamic Republic. But his sermon was an unmistakable challenge to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who declared Ahmadinejad’s victory valid and ordered an end to questioning of the results. Rafsanjani said the dispute has split clerics and warned of “crisis.”
Worshippers interrupted Rafsanjani with chants of “azadi, azadi” Persian for “freedom” and the cleric got tears in his eyes as he spoke of how Islam’s Prophet Muhammad “respected the rights” of his people. Rafsanjani said the leader of the 1979 Islamic revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, “knew that people’s vote was the most important thing in our country” and insisted it be enshrined in the founding of the Islamic Republic. “Where people are not present or their vote is not considered, that government is not Islamic,” Rafsanjani said.