By Golnaz Esfandiari, RFE/RL
On July 15, Mohammad Nourizad, a former hard-line conservative columnist turned dissident, kissed the feet of a 4-year-old Baha'i boy named Artin. Nourizad posted a photo of the scene on his blog along with an account of the meeting. "I told Artin: 'My little boy, I apologize to you on behalf of all of those who, in these Islamic years, have made you and your [Baha'i] fellows face injustice.' "
Nourizad, who has previously been accused by some of political exhibitionism, suggested that by kissing the boy's feet, he was following the example of Pope Francis, who earlier this year kissed the feet of a young female Muslim prisoner.
"When the Pope, the leader of the world's Catholics, bends, washes, and kisses the feet of a Muslim criminal, why shouldn't I kiss your feet as a representative of the office of [Iran's Supreme leader Ali Khamenei] and the [many] Shi'ite sources of emulation?" he wrote.
Artin, whose parents are in jail because of their faith, is cared for by his grandmother. Nourizad wrote that Artin's grandfather was executed several years ago "most likely" on spying charges.
Baha'is comprise Iran's largest non-Muslim religious minority and face persecution and discrimination. Their faith is not officially recognized by the regime.
Some Muslims consider Baha'is heretics because the religion's founder, Bahaullah, declared himself a prophet of God. Muslims believe that the Prophet Muhammad is "the end of prophesy."
In recent years, state pressure on Baha'is has reportedly increased. Artin's parents are among many who have been sentenced to prison for teaching Baha'i students at underground universities. Baha'is are banned from access to higher education in Iran.
The pressure on adherents of the religion comes amid attempts by hard-line Iranian clerics and media to demonize the country's 300,000 Baha'is.
The Baha'i International Community issued a report in 2011 documenting reports in Iranian media in which the Baha'i faith was branded "deviant," a "misguided cult," and its followers, "Satanists."
On his blog, Nourizad wrote: "Little Artin meets [his parents] every Sunday. He goes to Karaj [prison] to meet his father and uncle and to Evin prison to meet his mother. Artin's parents have not committed any crime, except that they're Baha'i."
Nourizad's visit is just the latest act of dissent among several that he has committed against the Iranian establishment and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, whom he once cherished.
He has written more than a dozen open letters to Khamenei accusing him of mistreating Iranians and isolating the nation on the international stage.
Nourizad was jailed in 2009 after criticizing that year's brutal state crackdown on protesters challenging the reelection of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, who leaves office next month.
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