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Clerical Regime Looks To Impose Control Over Iran's Sunni Seminaries

A Sunni Kurd prays at the Jame Mosque in the city of Sanandaj in Kurdistan Province. Sunnis complain of being marginalized by Iran's Shi'ite regime.
A Sunni Kurd prays at the Jame Mosque in the city of Sanandaj in Kurdistan Province. Sunnis complain of being marginalized by Iran's Shi'ite regime.
The Shi'ite clerical regime of Iran appears to be intensifying its repression of the country's Sunnis under the guise of "reorganizing" their seminaries.

This is being done through the full implementation of a memorandum issued in 2008 by Iran's Supreme Cultural Revolution Council, a Qom-based conservative-dominated body whose 41 members are appointed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

President Mahmud Ahmadinejad chairs the body, although any decisions made by the council can be overruled by Khamenei.

In 2008, the council issued a memorandum titled "Bylaws of the Council for Planning Curricula of Sunni Seminaries" (CPCSS), which has 10 articles and four addendums. According to one of the articles, all Sunni seminaries must be managed by the council under the guidance of Ayatollah Khamenei's representatives.

On June 21, Hojatoleslam Abbas Farzi, the secretary of the CPCSS, told Fars news agency that 98 percent of Sunni seminaries in the country had been reorganized, restructured, and registered. "The aim of the CPCSS is to give services to Sunni clerics...[by] evaluating their qualification, issuing appropriate certificates...and increasing their allowance from September this year," he said.

Based on an edict of Ayatollah Khamenei, he added, "all [Sunni] seminaries, as well as maintaining their own traditions, should be equipped with up-to-date knowledge of the world."

Prior to the formation of the CPCSS, the clerical establishment, at Khamenei's behest, established two Grand Islamic Centers in the provinces of Kurdistan and Golestan with the aim of paving the way for "the cooperation of Sunni clerics with representatives of the supreme leader."

Official Respect, Real Discrimination

Most Kurds, Baluchis, and Turkmen in Iran are Sunnis. They make up about 10 percent of the population and most of them live in the provinces of West Azerbaijan, Kurdistan, Kermanshah, Golestan, and Sistan va Baluchistan.

Is Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's talk of Shi'ite-Sunni unity just that?
The constitution of the Islamic republic accords Sunni Muslims higher status than other religious minorities in the country. Officially, according to Article 12 of the constitution, "full respect" should be given to other schools of Islam and they should be free to practice their religious rites and rituals.

But this is far from the reality. Iran's Sunni Muslims experience discrimination and marginalization in their own country, where Shi'ite Islam is the official state religion and Shi'a hold political power. So far, Sunnis have not been allowed to build mosques in major cities such as Tehran and there has been a single Sunni among government ministers and deputy ministers since 1979.

In an August 5 ceremony in Zahedan, the center of Sistan and Baluchistan Province, mid-ranking Shi'ite cleric Hojatoleslam Ahmad Barati was appointed to head the office tasked with reviewing the curricula of Sunni seminaries in the province. Conducting the ceremony, Ayatollah Abbas Ali Soleymani, the supreme leader's representative in the province, said that the reorganization of some Sunni seminaries would bring them in line with other religious schools in the country.

"Teachers of some Sunni seminaries with their proclivity toward Wahhabism and their deviant teaching are brainwashing their students," Soleymani continued. "If we can broaden the horizon of these deceived young students, we would definitely stop them from indulging in acts of barbarism and committing crimes," he added, referring to acts of terrorism and suicide bombings, including those of the Sunni militant group Jundallah, that bedeviled the province in the last few years.

Sunnis Reject Government Control

The decision of the clerical regime to implement the reorganization of Sunni schools in the province has infuriated many local scholars. "Our national pact is the constitution. The constitution grants us religious freedom and therefore we cannot leave the [running] of our mosques and seminaries to the government," said Zahedan Friday Prayer leader Molavi Abdul Hamid. "We cannot trust [the government] on this issue."

Hamid rejected the interference of the clerical regime in Sunni affairs and indentified religious beliefs as a "red line" for Sunnis and Shi'a. "If the government wants to supervise, then we accept it. We obey the government and the exalted leader [Khamenei], but we cannot leave our religious matters to you," he said. "These matters should never be left in the hands of a government, be it the Islamic government or any government after it. Do not try to frighten us with jail or summons. God knows that we are not even scared of death."

Some experts believe that the decision to organize and manage Sunni seminaries is one of the regime's levers of political control over the volatile province of Sistan va Baluchistan, which is a victim of three major fault lines in the political system of Iran: national-ethnic, Sunni-Shi'ite, and center-periphery.

Bombings and attacks by Sunni militants in Iran have kept tensions high.
Abdolsattar Doshoki, a Baluchi political analyst in London, says that Iran "in words, shows an apparent tolerance toward Sunnis in Iran, but its deeds are different, by [ignoring] attacks on lecturers of Sunni seminaries and preventing them from attending conferences abroad."

Speaking to RFE/RL's Radio Farda, Doshoki adds: "The process of intimidating and exerting pressure on Sunni scholars for the control of their seminaries has been going on for a number of years. However, the process has gained momentum in the last few months. This action is meant to put pressure on the scholars and prevent them from going abroad and attending international conferences. These kinds of actions for weakening, putting pressure on, and discriminating against [scholars] will unfortunately pave the way for the growth of extremist groups in Baluchistan."

Calling For Unity?

Ayatollah Khamenei has on many occasions emphasized the need for unity among Shi'a and Sunnis and called on them to do away with controversies that bar them from forging a robust unity.

In May 2009, addressing the people of Saqqez in Kurdistan Province, the supreme leader underlined the necessity of vigilance against plots to sow Shi'ite-Sunni discord and warned Muslims of all sects against insulting the sanctities of Shi'a or Sunnis, describing it as a "a red line that must not be crossed unknowingly or through prejudice."

On October 3, 2010, Khamenei issued a fatwa banning any insult to the symbols of Sunni Muslims, a move that was well received by many Sunni scholars, including the chancellor of Al-Azhar University of Islamic Sciences in Cairo.

In spite of Khamenei's talk of inter-Muslim unity and the "brotherhood" of Shi'a and Sunnis, those Sunni clerics who do not toe the line of the Shi'ite regime are harassed or denounced as Wahhabis, or adherents of the ultraorthodox school of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia.

In a recent stage-managed demonstration in Zahedan, demonstrators chanted: "Death to Wahhabis, Death to Molavi [Abdul Hamid] Wahhabi."

Alluding to the difference between the deeds and the words of Khamenei, Molavi Abdul Hamid recently said: "There is talk of unity among [Shi'a and Sunnis], but unfortunately it is not observed. We expected the exalted leader [Khamenei] to act like a father so there would be no difference between Shi'a and Sunnis. We expected him to respond to our letters, complaints, and our outcries."

Morad Vaisi of RFE/RL's Radio Farda contributed to this report