When journalist Pouyan Khoshhal penned an article about the potential health risks to Iranians of a major Shi'ite pilgrimage to neighboring Iraq, he might not have guessed that it could cost him his job and land him in jail.
Yet the text has apparently drawn criminal blasphemy charges over a reference to Shi'ite Islam's Third Imam for Khoshhal, who has previously been a target of hard-line ire.
Meanwhile his newspaper, the reformist daily Ebtekar, has announced the termination of Khoshhal's employment contract.
Without explicitly naming Khoshhal, Tehrani prosecutor Abbas Jafari Dolatabadi said on October 24 that a journalist would face prosecution for "pieces of content" insulting to Imam Husayn ibn Ali, a grandson of the Prophet Muhammad revered under Iran's official religion, Shi'ite Islam.
A news agency affiliated with the Iranian Judiciary, Mizan, reported on October 25 that Khoshhal had been detained late the previous day "while trying to leave the country." It said Khoshhal's article had met with "many criticisms and protests" for referring to the "death" of Imam Husayn instead of using the clerical regime's preferred phrasing, "martyrdom."
Mizan reported that investigators determined that Khoshhal had also insulted religious figures on social media.
Khoshhal has not publicly reacted to the controversy, but his Twitter account appears to have been deleted.
Mirzan also quoted an unnamed senior editor at Ebtekar apologizing to any who were "hurt" or "angered" by the article, adding that the paper had ended its cooperation with Khoshhal.
The article now appears on Ebtekar's website with the term "martyrdom" in reference to the Third Imam.
In it, Khoshhal warned Iranian pilgrims who journey on foot to Karbala to commemorate Husayn and his companions' seventh-century deaths about the danger of preventable diseases along the way.
Tens of thousands of Iranians cross the border on foot each year for the so-called Arba'een Pilgrimage, which is among the world's largest religious festivals, after a 40-day mourning period that follows Ashura. In all, 2 million Iranians were said to have taken part last year to pay homage to Husayn.
Khoshhal noted that Iraq "may not be fully in line with universal health standards" and urged Iranians to stay safe and return home "with the gift of health and spirituality."
The article was quickly blasted by Shi'ite conservatives on social media who seized on Khoshhal's reference to Husayn's "death" at the hands of Caliph Yazid's forces. Many demanded that Iranian authorities take action, and some posted screen grabs of what they claimed were old tweets by Khoshhal insulting inviolable elements of Islam.
'Insulting Islamic Sanctities'
The critics included conservative poet Mohammad Mehdi Abdollahi, who accused Khoshhal of "ridiculing" the annual Arba'een commemoration.
"We call on the honorable Judiciary officials to take immediate action against [Khoshhal] who has a record [of blasphemy]," Abdollahi wrote on Twitter on October 23, attaching an image of the controversial article with the passage "the anniversary of the 40th day after the death of Imam Husayn" highlighted.
In another tweet, Abdollahi posted an article of Iran's Islamic Penal Code that states, "Anyone who insults the Islamic sanctities or any of the Imams or [the daughter of Prophet Muhammad] should be executed if the insult constitutes speaking disparagingly of Prophet Muhammad. Otherwise, they should be imprisoned for from one to five years."
Some claimed that by warning about the health situation in Iraq, Khoshhal had attempted to prevent pilgrims from traveling to Karbala.
Conservative publications joined the chorus.
The hard-line Kayhan claimed that Khoshhal's tweets were so "shameful and offensive" that the daily could not publish them. "A decisive action against such shameful insults can teach a lesson to those who sacrifice people's religious beliefs for their own filthy intentions," the daily said.
In August, Iranian journalist Amir Hossein Esmaili was sentenced to 10 years in prison and a two-year ban on media activities over a tweet deemed insulting to Shi'ite Islam's Eighth Imam. His lawyer vowed he would appeal the sentence. In the tweet, the Jahan-e Sanat journalist had suggested that Imam Reza was "one of us," suggesting that the revered religious figure would have enjoyed and allowed fun.
Esmaili said he wrote the tweet in reaction to a suggestion by Mashhad Friday Prayers leader Ayatollah Ahmad Alamolhoda that holding concerts was an insult to the Shi'ite imam.
The journalist later deleted the tweet and apologized, saying that he did not mean to offend anyone.
Iranian authorities have closed scores of publications over the years and detained or imprisoned dozens of journalists and media workers for a range of perceived offenses touching on religion or the Iranian leadership's so-called red lines.
Iran ranks 164th on Reporters Without Borders 2018 World Press Freedom Index.