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Sistan-Baluchistan province has been the scene of deadly violence and protests -- like this one at Amir Kabir University in 2009 -- in the past.
Tensions are running high in a southeastern Iranian province with a majority Sunni population after a protest against the recent arrest of local religious figures ended in bloodshed.

At least one person was killed and two injured after police forces opened fire on the protesters, who had gathered in the city of Rask in Iran's Sistan-Baluchistan province on May 14. According to reports, they were demonstrating against the recent arrests of the son of the city's Friday Prayers leader and other Sunni clerics.

Sunni Muslims make the majority of the population in Sistan-Baluchistan but make up only about 10 percent of the population in Shi'a-dominated Iran overall.

Iran's officials and state media have not reported on the unrest. But SunniOnline, a website that covers news about Iran's Sunni minority, wrote that police opened fire on protesters, resulting in the death of a man identified as Jan Mohammad Dehghani. His funeral was reportedly held on May 15.

Quoting unidentified citizens of Rask, the daily "Etemad" reported that at least two people were killed in the shooting, without providing further details.

Deutsche Welle's Farsi Service quoted a source in Rask as saying that a number of protesters were rounded up and suggesting that more arrests could follow after authorities traveled from the provincial capital to investigate.

"Protesters were filmed, today security forces came from Zahedan to identify [those who took part in the protest] and arrest them," the unidentified source reportedly told the German news agency.

The recent arrest of Abdolghafar Naghshbandi, the son of Rask Friday Prayers leader Molavi Fathi Naghshbandi, was apparently the most immediate cause of the protests. He was reportedly arrested upon returning from nearby Zahedan, where he had traveled to learn about the fate of his father, who was imprisoned along with a number of other Sunni scholars in mid-April.

SunniOnline wrote that women initiated the protest in Rask and were later joined by other citizens angry over the arrests of Sunni figures.

Some reports say Friday Prayers leader Fathi Naghshbandi and a dozen others were arrested in connection with the January assassination of pro-government Sunni cleric Molavi Mostafa Jang Zehi. Jang Zehi was killed by unknown assailants on a road in Sistan-Baluchistan.

Iran's Intelligence Ministry said in April that it had arrested "15 terrorists" involved in the assassination of Jang Zehi, who has been described as a Basij commander and cleric loyal to the establishment. Iranian hard-line websites reported that Jang Zehi had received death threats from the Sunni militant group Jundullah, which is believed to be behind a number of attacks in the region in the past few years. The group, whose leader was executed in Iran in 2010, has been labeled as a terrorist organization by Iran and the United States.

The ministry claimed that the opposition Mujahedin Khalq Organization (MKO) was involved in planning the attack, while "elements affiliated with Wahhabi groups" carried out the assassination. The ministry didn't provide the names of those arrested. SunniOnline later reported that Fathi Naghshbandi and Molavi Abdollah Molazadeh, the Friday Prayers leader of the city of Paroud, are among those arrested on terrorism charges.

Members of Iran's Sunni minority often complain of discrimination and neglect by the government.

Although Iran's constitution guarantees the rights of the country's minorities, Sunnis are in practice not allowed to build their own mosques in major cities. Sunni clerics critical of the Iranian establishment face pressure and they are sometimes denounced as "Wahhabis."

SunniOnline reports that there have also been protests over the arrest of Sunni scholars in Jagikour, located in Sistan-Baluchistan's Sarbaz district, of which Rask is the capital.

-- Golnaz Esfandiari
"Whatever is not in praise and approval of the political and religious system is dismissed and declared as apostasy,” says Iranian rapper Shahin Najafi.
Iranian rapper Shahin Najafi’s new song, "Naghi," contains the perfect ingredients for controversy.

The lyrics include joking references to Naghi, the 10th imam of the Shi’ites; a penis; Viagra; and the breasts of an Iranian actress.

The image that accompanies the song on YouTube depicts the dome of what appears to be a religious shrine as a female breast, with a rainbow flag -- the symbol of the gay community -- flying over it:

Naghi, I swear on your sense of humor
On this exile that is far from [you]
On the great organ of life
That sits behind us in a threatening mode
Naghi, I invoke you on the length and width of sanctions
On the rising value of the dollar and the feeling of humiliation
Naghi, I swear on the cardboard imam
On the baby who was saying “Ali!” while stuck in his mother’s womb

The song has been condemned by some inside Iran as disrespectful and insulting to Imam Naghi, while others have praised it for breaking religious taboos.

Najafi, who moved to Germany in 2005, told RFE/RL that his aim was not to insult religious sanctities.

“I had done something similar in the past. I have another song titled 'Mahdi' [and] there hasn’t been any such reaction to it," Najafi says. "Also, I thought many would like the song. It’s satirical. When I [create] something, I never think about its consequences.”

The consequences this time include a $100,000 bounty on his head and calls for his execution. The hard-line website Shia-online is offering the reward and says the sum will be paid by an unnamed Arab country in the Persian Gulf.

Call To Violence

The hard-line semi-official Fars news agency, which is affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), claimed earlier this week that senior Ayatollah Safi Golpayegani had issued a fatwa against Najafi and declared him an apostate. The punishment for apostasy in Iran is death.

The ayatollah issued a written statement in response to a question about the song. Without naming names, he said, “If they have insulted the imam, they are apostates.”
Whatever is not in praise and approval of the political and religious system is dismissed and declared as apostasy.
Rapper Shahin Najafi

Najafi says that’s a call to violence. He says he has had to take measures to ensure his safety.

“When you issue a death sentence for someone – even under the assumption that that person has insulted [religious sanctities -- that’s [spreading] violence, and it’s unacceptable,” Najafi says.

The song touches on social problems in Iran, mentioning "prayers rugs made in China," "fossilized opposition in the diaspora," and the reported "3 percent of Iran's population that reads books." But it also mentions sensitive religious issues, including the return of the Hidden Imam.

In the song, Najafi calls on Naghi to appear and redeem the world instead of Imam Mahdi or the Hidden Imam, who Shi’ites believe will reappear and bring justice to the world.

O Naghi, now that the Hidden Imam is asleep, we call upon you, O Naghi
Appear, for we are ready in our burial shrouds, O Naghi , O Naghi, O Naghi, O Naghi.

It’s not just religious hard-liners who are offended. Some members of the Iranian opposition believe Najafi has crossed a line.

“It is our right for our beliefs and sanctities not to be insulted,” a reformist activist based in Tehran wrote on Facebook.

No Regrets

Religious Iranians consider their imams to be saints. For Najafi, who is an atheist, Naghi is merely a "historical figure.”

Najafi says the definition of what constitutes an insult should be reviewed.

“This is the problem of those who have dogmatic and ideological views on issues," he says. "That is why in Iran’s history, art has not been accepted as it should be. Whatever is not in praise and approval of the political and religious system is dismissed and declared as apostasy.”

Despite the threats, Najafi says has no regrets, however.

“If I regretted what I did for a second," he says, "I would say farewell to music."

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About This Blog

Persian Letters is a blog that offers a window into Iranian politics and society. Written primarily by Golnaz Esfandiari, Persian Letters brings you under-reported stories, insight and analysis, as well as guest Iranian bloggers -- from clerics, anarchists, feminists, Basij members, to bus drivers.


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