A senior Iranian cleric, Grand Ayatollah Bayat Zanjani, has discussed religious issues with his supporters on Facebook and Google Talk.
A statement posted on the website
of Ayatollah Bayat Zanjani, who has come under pressure from the Iranian authorities over his postelection stances, says the "unprecedented" online discussion took place on November 4 with a number of Internet users inside and outside of Iran.
The statement says that during the 90-minute discussion, Ayatollah Zanjani, who is a source of emulation, answered questions about the Prophet Mohammad and other religious figures and also about the role of clerics “in the piety and religiousness of the youth”.
The website says similar discussions are due to be continued in the future. Ayatollah Bayat’s son, Mohsen Bayat,
who had organized the online discussion, posted a picture of his father while chatting with a supporter.
Bayat described the online chat session as a special and unforgettable experience. He writes on his blog that some of the participants in the discussion thought he was making fun of them and they didn’t believe that his father would really chat with them. He writes that one young man, who at first didn’t believe him, started to cry when he heard the voice of the cleric.
“In short, I had a strange and unforgettable day, a day that was maybe a turning point in the form of communication between religious scholars and their audience and their responses to their concerns,” he said.
The online discussion highlights the power of the Internet as a tool for dissent in Iran. The establishment has put a lot of effort into blocking the free flow of information and limiting communication between opposition figures, dissident clerics, and their supporters.
The website of Ayatollah Zanjani (and a few other clerics critical of the postelection crackdown) was blocked by the Iranian authorities in October.
Ayatollah Zanjani then condemned the move and said in statement that "in the age of information," no one can block people's sources of information and knowledge.
The Iranian government faces a difficult task. Despite very tough Internet censorship, Iranians have found ways to get online, read banned and filtered blogs and websites, exchange ideas, and share news on social-networking sites including Facebook.
-- Golnaz Esfandiari