January 30, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The Iranian dailies "Ayande-yi No" and "Etemad" have commented this month on increasingly fragile relations between theologians in Qom -- Iran's main center of religious studies -- and the government of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, whose populist manner has not proved entirely palatable to clerics concerned with public morals and political stability.
"Ayande-yi No" noted on January 15 that the "roots" of the differences are mainly "cultural," but observers have warned that this estrangement could cost the government a lot of public support. Both dailies cited several episodes since Ahmadinejad's election in mid 2005 that have apparently undermined relations.
One was his decision in April 2006 to allow women into sports stadiums to watch soccer games in mixed crowds, which senior clerics deplored as encouraging indecency.
Another incident was the president's presence in Doha at the opening of the Asian Games in December, where he reportedly witnessed displays that included dancing women -- considered indecent by strict Muslims.
Another, undated incident cited was the reported attendance by Vice President Esfandiar Rahim-Mashai at a private party in Turkey, where again there was dancing. The vice president apparently did not leave, "Ayande-yi No" reported, citing iranews.org.
For his part, Mashai has accused two legislators of conducting a smear campaign against him by distributing video footage from the party. He said they edited the video to give the impression that he stayed for the entire party, though he said he left when the dancing started.
Clerics were then puzzled by the president's letter, or letters, to Pope Benedict XVI, presumably because this was a religious matter not directly related to presidential prerogatives and because some of Benedict's comments on Islam last year made him controversial to many Muslims.
'The Religious Authorities Should Have Been Consulted'
These incidents, the daily noted, have prompted Qom's silent disapproval -- and, at times, public criticism -- and have given the impression the president takes religion, public morals, and the Qom religious authorities lightly. A cleric and member of the conservative Islamic Coalition Party, Hojjatoleslam Mohammad Khorsand, was cited by "Ayande-yi No" on January 15 as saying it "was a mistake" to write to a pontiff who seemed to have insulted Muslims. "If the seminaries and religious authorities [marajeh] had been consulted," Khorsand said, the letter would not have been written.
"Ayande-yi No" stated that observers believe this estrangement may harm the government, given the respect most Iranians are said to have for Qom theologians. "The mass of [Iranians] are religious, and when there is a growing distance between the government and the seminaries, [Iranians] will move toward the theologians," the daily quoted Mohsen Gharavian, a pupil of Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi -- considered a religious mentor to the president -- as saying.
Mohammad Gharavi, a spokesman for the conservative Society of Qom Seminary Teachers was quoted by "Ayande-yi No" as saying the government should take issues that concern the clergy more seriously.
"The Muslim people, theologians, and seminary elders cannot tolerate the repetition" of such incidents as those cited above, Gharavi said. "Etemad" reported on January 14 that Gharavi stressed in a fax sent to the paper that he said the above in a private capacity, not as a spokesman for the Society of Qom Teachers.
A Poor Liaison
"Ayande-yi No" added that the government has a religious-affairs adviser, who also acts as a liaison with Qom. This government's liaison is Hojjatoleslam Mohammad Naser Saqa-i Biria, a pupil of Mesbah-Yazdi. In spite of his ties with the influential Mesbah-Yazdi, the daily notes he has failed to maintain cordial ties between Qom and the presidency.
The distance between clerics and the government was evident recently by the president's absence in Qom on January 9. Past presidents have generally attended ceremonies in the city commemorating an uprising that took place there in 1978.
The daily contrasted this absence with the fact that the last president, reformist cleric Mohammad Khatami, was usually welcome in Qom despite the criticisms senior theologians leveled against his liberalizing social and cultural policies.
"Etemad" quoted Mohsen Gharavian as saying that Saqa-i Biria lived for several years in the United States and enjoys "a lower status in the Qom seminary," in spite of his 25-year association with Mesbah-Yazdi.
Ahmadinejad "does not have suitable and good advisers, at least in the seminary," Gharavi of the Society of Qom Seminary Teachers concluded, "Etemad" reported on January 14.
The respect Qom clerics enjoy among Iran's officialdom is shown in the visit nuclear-dossier chief Ali Larijani paid to Qom on January 19 to explain to senior theologians the state of the nuclear issue.
For now, the concerns of clerics seem to center on morals or "culture." Hojjatoleslam Khorsand was cited by "Etemad" as saying that "in cultural issues, a policy of tolerance and laxity is not acceptable." He urged Ahmadinejad not to overlook incidents like the party in Turkey.
That incident was again cited on January 21 by Ahmad Karimi, the secretary-general of the conservative Islamic Society of Guilds and Bazaar Associations, speaking to ILNA. "The president must safeguard the system's Islamic positions," he said. "The theologians are, like us...concerned about the safeguarding of values. I ask the president to respond over Mashai's conduct, and not to overlook that."
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