By Golnaz Esfandiari, RFE/RL
Iranian religious orator Hamid Alimi is a well-known figure in the city of Isfahan, where he regularly attends religious ceremonies to chant about Shi'ite figures.
But Alimi is now far from home, reportedly in Syria.
His trip is a rare instance of a publicized visit by an Iranian to Syria during its bloody civil war.
Iranian websites have quoted Alimi as saying that he has joined those defending the shrine of Sayida Zeinab, a granddaughter of the Prophet Muhammad. The golden-domed mausoleum, located in the southern suburbs of Damascus, is a center of pilgrimage for Shi'ites from around the world.
The news about Alimi's trip to Syria broke earlier this week after photos emerged on the Internet showing him posing with a rifle, apparently somewhere in the Syrian capital.
The origin of the photos is a blog in Alimi's name that is said to be maintained by some of his supporters. The same blog also posted a short explanation of the reason behind the trip, said to be written by Alimi himself.
The photos and the comments have been picked up by a number of Iranian news sites, including the semiofficial ISNA news agency and the popular website Tabnak. They have also been shared widely on social media in Iran, leading to discussions about the country's role in Syria.
The United States has accused Iran of sending members of its powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) to Syria to assist President Bashar al-Assad's forces. Iranian officials have rejected the charges.
Alimi is quoted in his blog as saying that he wasn't sent to Syria by any figure or any official group.
"It took me 20 days to get here," he reportedly said. "Most of the flights between Tehran and Damascus have been canceled. I entered Syria through another country."
He also claimed to have "nothing to do" with the Assad government, which has brutally cracked down on opposition forces during the more than two-year-long war.
Western media outlets have reported that Shi'ite fighters from countries including Iraq and Lebanon are in Syria to protect Shi'ite holy sites -- especially Zeinab's shrine -- that are in danger because of the conflict.
Last month, several Iranian news agencies posted photos of a meeting held in a Tehran mosque in which volunteers could sign up to travel to Syria to defend the shrine. It is not clear whether anyone did so or whether the meeting was primarily for show.
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