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Iranian Authorities Destroy Sufi Holy Site In Isfahan

Only rubble remains from the destroyed house of worship in Isfahan
Only rubble remains from the destroyed house of worship in Isfahan
A house of worship of the Gonabadi dervishes in Isfahan has reportedly been destroyed by the Iranian authorities.

The reason for the destruction -- which reportedly took place shortly after midnight on February 18 -- is not clear, but it comes amid growing pressure on dervishes, who practice the Sufi tradition of Islam, and other religious minorities in Iran.

The dervish house of worship, or hosseinieh, was located next to the tomb of the great poet and dervish Naser Ali at the historical Takht-e Foulad cemetery, where a number of respected Iranian figures are buried.

Dervishes gathered there to pray, meditate, read Sufi poetry, and perform religious ceremonies. In recent months, following the demolition of several dervish sites throughout Iran, dervishes in Isfahan had expressed concern that their hosseinieh could meet a similar fate.

To prevent that from happening, several of the local dervishes were spending nights at the hosseinieh to keep watch.

But there was little they could do when, in the early hours of February 18, some 200 members of the security forces, police, and plainclothes agents arrived.

The dervishes' mobile phones were taken away to prevent them from informing others of the raid, and they were detained and transferred to a police station.

Abdol Saleh Loghmani, one of the Isfahan dervishes, told RFE/RL that the security forces cut off water and electricity to the area, and destroyed the walls around the poet's tomb with a bulldozer.

"They also destroyed the library where [religious] books were kept. They demolished the big hall where we had our Monday and Friday ceremonies and also our Sunday dawn meetings. They took away all the carpets and other property," he said.

He said the five people were detained, but they were released after the authorities completed the demolition. He that added authorities then dispersed the dervishes who, after hearing the news about the destruction, had gathered around the site.

Crackdown On Minorities

Sufis in Isfahan and elsewhere in Iran see the raid as just one part of a campaign by conservatives against the Gonabadi dervishes. The crackdown has included arrests, court summons, and accusations in the media that Sufism is a deviation from true Islam.

A Sufi house of worship was demolished in the city of Qom in 2006; another was partially destroyed in Borujerd in 2007; and a Sufi prayer house in Kish was forced to close late in 2008.

Some Sufis have faced arrest, been sentenced to lashings, or been forced to pledge not to attend Sufi ceremonies.

Mostafa Azmayesh, the author of several books on Sufism and the representative of the Gonabadi dervishes outside Iran, told RFE/RL that what he describes as "hidden pressure" on dervishes is also growing.

Authorities "have said that dervishes are not allowed to be buried in Beydokht [the main birthplace of leaders of the Gonabadi dervishes] anymore," he said. "There is a [cemetery] there that belongs to the Gonabadi branch, and some dervishes write in their testaments that they want to be buried there -- but the Beydokht municipality has banned it."

Sufis observe Islamic beliefs, but they also believe in pursuit of the truth through mysticism. Some conservative clerics consider Sufism a danger to Islam.

Dervishes believe that what they describe as their sect's growing popularity is one of the reasons behind the growing state pressure. They say many Iranians are fed up with the official state interpretation of Islam and are attracted to alternative approaches.

Azmayesh says it is clear that there is growing state intolerance toward religious minorities in Iran.

"These demolitions...demonstrate the oppression and crimes that are being committed against the religious minorities in Iran -- when they treat dervishes that are Shi'ite Muslims in this manner. It's not clear what [authorities] do to the other [Iranian citizens] who are the followers of other religions," he said.

Rights groups say respect for religious freedom has deteriorated in Iran since hard-line President Mahmud Ahmadinejad took power some four years ago.
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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is managing editor of RFE/RL's Radio Farda, which breaks through government censorship to deliver accurate news and provide a platform for informed discussion and debate to audiences in Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors 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.

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