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"Iranian Ďcultí of imam sparks controversy

Najmeh Bozorgmehr
London Financial Times

(8/17/08) When President Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad launched Iranís first domestically built telecommunications satellite into space on Sunday, he did so in the name of the last true Shia imam, Mohammed al-Mahdi.

The launch coincided with the end of festivities in Iran to mark the birthday of the imam, one of the holiest figures in Shia Islam, who is believed to have gone into hiding in the year 941 and will return to bring peace and justice to the world.

Every year, thousands of Shia Muslims flock to shrines to mark his birthday. In Iran, they head for the Jamkaran mosque, 110km south of Tehran, where the mystical Shia leader is believed to receive pilgrimsí written messages.

But this yearís festivities have proved unusually controversial because of claims that the imam is being exploited for commercial and political purposes. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iranís supreme leader, on Sunday called those who had "opened a business" and claimed to have been connected to the imam "liars". Former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani said the current "fake" obsession with the imam had "misled millions of people".

Regime insiders say Mr Khamenei is unhappy with the religious fanaticism of the government, although he backs its economic, political and international policies.

Mr Ahmadi-Nejad rarely starts a speech at home or abroad without first praying for God to hasten the imamís second coming. The president, who has no clerical background, makes frequent reference to the imam as a way of displaying his piety, and many Iranians this weekend followed their presidentís example by sticking badges of the same prayer on the windows of their cars or shops in celebration of the imamís birthday.

"We are witnessing a new cult in Shiism whose leaders claim to be connected to the imam," says one regime insider.

Developing the Jamkaran mosque was one of the first religious decisions the president took when he came to office in 2005. Some clerics reckon the mosque is becoming more popular than the nearby shrine in the holy city of Qom, which is devoted to a close member of the Prophetís family.

Senior clergy based in Qom Ė the seat of religious authority in Iran Ė have been at odds with Mr Ahmadi-Nejad since his election three years ago. For a long time they refused any meeting with him in protest at his unorthodox religious approach. This was an unprecedented snub towards a head of government either before or since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

Neither the president nor a dozen close allies have ever publicly claimed they feel connected to the last Shia Imam. But Mr Ahmadi-Nejadís comments some time ago that Imam Mahdi "is in charge of the world and we see his hand directing all the affairs of the country" set off a flurry of rumours that he does indeed feel he has a divine mission.

"Some charlatans have started saying, ĎWe had breakfast with the imam or had the noon prayer with himí," Hassan Rowhani, Iranís former top security official and a senior cleric, said recently without disclosing names. "This is a plot to fool the young generation of religious, innocent and pious people."

Many clerics and politicians believe the government encourages superstition among the masses to win votes and deflect attention away from day-to-day problems such as inflation, currently at 26.1 per cent.

"Iran has always provided fertile ground for superstitious beliefs," said the regime insider. "They can prove especially popular when combined with special care for the poorest segments of society as [Mr] Ahmadi-Nejad is doing."

Fatemeh Rajabi, one of Mr Ahmadi-Nejadís leading advocates, says all Shia have a "mission to expose injustice" and oppose it to prepare for the Mahdiís return. She dismisses the charges of spreading superstition as "politically motivated".

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