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Iran: Local Authorities Try To Evict Sufi Leader

PRAGUE, October 12, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- About 300 security forces in the northeastern Iranian city of Gonabad surrounded the residence of a prominent Sufi leader on October 10 after he refused an order to leave his city of birth. Critics call the eviction order the latest example of official harassment of minority religious groups like Sufis and dervishes.

Dr. Nurali Tabandeh, also known as Majzub Ali Shah, has said he has no intention of altering his plans to remain in the city until October 13.

For more than a century, the leaders of the Nematollahi Gonabadi dervish order have lived and been buried in Gonabad, in Iran's Khorasan Province.

Some were forced out of their birthplace following the establishment of an Islamic republic in Iran and never allowed back. They included the older brother of the man at the heart of this latest confrontation, who was himself a leader of the mystic Sufi tradition.

Ramadan Return

But Nurali Tabandeh has been returning regularly to Gonabad from his home in Tehran during the holy month of Ramadan to meet with followers and pilgrims from all over Iran.

Local website "Mizan" and Sufi sources have claimed authorities in Gonabad simply ordered Tabandeh to leave, without any explanation. Some observers have speculated that officials want to avoid a large gathering of Sufis in the city -- dervishes from all over the country arrive in Gonabad every year to mark the end of Ramadan, Id al-Fitr, in Tabandeh's presence.

Farshid Yadollahi, a lawyer and a follower of Tabandeh's Nematollahi Gonabadi order, is in Gonabad, and he tells RFE/RL that Tabandeh has vowed that he will remain there -- meeting followers -- until October 13.

"This is according to which article of Iran's constitution?"

Yadollahi says he thinks the authorities' actions are unlawful.

"Every year [Sufis] from all over Iran, and also from foreign countries, tourists and researchers come here," Yadollahi says. "They come for pilgrimage, there is a pilgrimage site here. It is truly surprising that someone is in his home -- and he comes here every year -- but then they come and tell him that he doesn't have the right to be in his home. This is according to which article of Iran's constitution?"

Official Hostility

There have long been tensions between dervishes -- a fraternity within Sufi tradition -- and those who favor a more conservative interpretation of Islam. But Sufi and rights groups say the harassment of Sufis has significantly increased since hard-line President Mahmud Ahmadinejad took office in August 2005.

In February, a Sufi house of worship was destroyed in Qom and hundreds of Sufis were detained. Many were injured in clashes with security forces.

In May, a court sentenced 52 Sufis and their lawyers -- including Yadollahi -- to jail terms and lashings in connection with the February incident. Yadollahi was given a five-year ban on practicing law. An Iranian news agency reported that the demolished Sufi house of worship was turned into a parking lot.

Mostafa Azmayesh, a Paris-based expert on Sufism and a representative of the Nematollahi Gonabadi order, says defamatory articles and religious decrees, or fatwas, targeting Sufism have appeared in Iran's conservative press in recent months.

One of the latest fatwas was issued by Ayatollah Fazel Lankarani in the "Joumhouri Eslami" newspaper. Lankarani accused Sufis of misleading Iranian youth.

"It was said in the articles that any contact with Sufis -- particularly with the Gonabadi branch -- is not permitted," Azmayesh says. "Even participating in their Koran readings is 'haram' (forbidden to Muslims). The aim is to create pressure and discrimination against the followers of this order. There was fear that during the month of Ramadan [authorities] would take such actions, but no one imagined that they would go that far and show such disrespect to Dr. Tabandeh Majzub Ali Shah, who is a national figure, a well-respected judge, and a university professor."

Followers of the Gonabadi orders have told RFE/RL that several Sufis have been fired from their jobs recently. They also claimed that others have been discriminated against by state agencies because of their faith. Sufis say restrictions on their literature have increased and worship gatherings have been broken up.

In its annual report on religious freedoms in September, the U.S. State Department alleged growing government repression of Sufi communities and said Sufi Muslims face a mounting campaign of "demonization."

Azmayesh tells RFE/RL that, since the February incident, "repression" of Sufis has continued.

"Shortly after the demolition of the Qom Hosseinieh, Semnan's Friday prayer leader praised it and said, 'We give 10 days to the Gonabadi dervishes in Semnan to evacuate their house of worship or demolish it, because we want to destroy it anyway,'" Azmayesh says. "There were attacks against several homes where weekly prayer meetings of the Gonabadi dervishes were held -- including one in Lorestan. They arrested the homeowners."

Viewed With Skepticism

Several conservative clerics in Iran have described Sufis as a "cult" and a "danger to Islam." Critics charge that Sufi teachings are inconsistent with the spirit of Islam. But Sufis contend that they are following the true Islam.

Sufism is based on the pursuit of mystical truth. Sufis engage in practices such as dance, music, and the recitation of Allah's divine names in pursuit of a more direct perception of God.

There are no reliable estimates of their numbers. But lawyer Yadollahi says Sufi beliefs are becoming increasingly popular in Iran, to the dismay of the clerical establishment.

"Some of these beliefs do not sit well with these gentlemen -- they want everyone to think in the same way and believe a single way," Yadollahi says. "When the establishment tries to impose religion through force, history has shown that it faces reactions -- people turn away from the religion campaigned for by the state, especially the youth."

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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL focusing on Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is the author of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.