By Frud Bezhan, RFE/RL
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez (left) being welcomed at the presidential palace in Tehran by Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad in October 2010.
Mahmud Ahmadinejad's eulogy to Hugo Chavez might have come from the heart, but it has drawn the Iranian president criticism at home. Some Iranian religious figures and media did not take kindly to condolences that Ahmadinejad posted on his personal website following the death of his Venezuelan counterpart.
Specifically, they were piqued at his prediction that Chavez would one day return alongside Jesus Christ and the Hidden Imam "to establish peace and justice in the world."
The Hidden (or 12th) Imam is a revered figure among Shi'ite Muslims, many of whom believe he will return to save humanity. Jesus is a prophet in Islam who Muslims believe will return to Earth on Judgment Day to defeat the false messiah.
Giving a firebrand leftist political leader messiah status -- no matter how much popularity Chavez enjoyed among Iranians -- was seen as a step too far by some.
"My strong opinion is that what the president said in his statement was exaggeration," Ayatollah Sayyid Ahmad Khatami, Tehran's Friday Prayer leader, was quoted as saying by the semiofficial news site Khabar Online on March 6.
"Logically, our president should express his condolences," said the conservative Khatami. "But I think it is not appropriate to make it ideological." The senior cleric added that Ahmadinejad was aware that his comments would attract strong reactions from religious figures and advised the president to refrain from causing "tension" in the future.
'Guided By The Hidden Imam'
Tabnak, a popular news website in the Islamic republic, lamented that Iran's political atmosphere had been influenced by Chavez's death.
"The president sent a message in which he named him as a Messiah-like figure," the website wrote, "and afterwards a day of mourning was declared."
It is not the first time Iranian clerics have criticized the president over comments about the Hidden Imam, also known as Imam Mahdi. When Ahmadinejad came to power in 2005, he pledged to "hasten the return" of the Imam. He has also angered religious figures by hinting that his government's actions, including its foreign policy, are guided by the Imam.
Ahmadinejad's constant references to the Hidden Imam have struck a chord with ordinary Iranians. Every Tuesday night, the predicted day of his return, thousands of Iranians come together at the shrine of Jamkaran, in the city of Qom. Locals write their wishes on pieces of paper and throw them into a well where the Imam is believed to have once appeared.
Ahmadinejad and his entire cabinet make their way to Jamkaran several times a year. The president is reported to have thrown copies of the government's budget and other decrees into the well for the Imam's consideration.
Such actions have raised the ire of Ahmadinejad's opponents, who say the president uses the Hidden Imam to his political advantage and as a means of deflecting criticism of his government.
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