By Kaveh Ghoreishi (source: Rooz Online)
Last week the governor of the province of Qom responded to complaints by Lebanon's Hassan Nasrollah who had called for greater controls over religious satellite television networks whose programs came from clerics and others in the Iranian city of Qom. Some broadcasts have been criticized for their anti-Sunni content.
Nasrollah called for those who influenced these broadcasts and who provided material to them to stop their controls. These remarks launched a new round of controversy about the role of Iranian groups and clerics in controlling and running satellite TV stations from Iran to the point that Fars news agency also criticized the policies by even naming some individuals who provided such content or controlled the satellite TV stations. At the same time, some Sunni activists pointed to the governor's remarks and other recent similar reports and revelations and said that they in fact exposed the "lies that many have been spreading for years about the presence of centers in Iran that are claimed to work to reduce tensions between Shiites and Sunnis."
According to Mehr news agency, Mohammad Sadegh SalehiManesh, the governor of the province of Qom, made unprecedented remarks during the opening ceremony of studios that broadcast live events from the mosques when he named Hassan Nasrollah, the leader of Lebanese Hezbollah, who had complained about some satellite broadcasting networks based in the city of Qom. "Our dear brother seyed Hassan Nasrollah sent a delegation last week to me and asked that some of the satellite stations that were fed from Qom should be brought under control," he said. He was refereeing to anti-Sunni programs produced in Qom but which are broadcast on satellite television stations that are registered outside Iran. Following the criticism, Fars news agency, published details about events that take place behind the scenes in these network channels and wrote, "While broadcasts from Qom are not a new phenomena, the official announcement of this by a senior administration official - i.e., the governor of Qom - brings forth a different meaning."
Fars made a reference to Ahl alBeit satellite television network which was created in Qom by a Hassan Alahyari and said that his insults against Sunnis were so deep that he was ultimately exiled from Iran. According to Fars, "the network has gone to Washington and fallen into the camp that promotes the policy of divide and rule so that the policy of creating divisions will be continued from Washington."
Fars, which is closely associated with Iran's military-security apparatus, also revealed that there are other television networks that have been created in Qom which generally follow the same direction and policies pursued by the Ahl alBeit satellite TV network. According to Fars, there are currently 11 Shiite satellite networks that broadcast in Persian along with a number of Arabic and English language satellite networks. Some of these channels are fed from Qom where their programs are produced, which is the core concern of some clerics including Lebanon's seyed Hassan Nasrollah. Imam Hossein satellite network is among TV channels that broadcasts in Persian, Arabic and English languages and its headquarters are in the Iraqi city of Kerbala while its programs are developed in the Iranian city of Qom and Washington DC in the US.
Alborz News, a news network belonging to Iran's Alborz province had announced last year that cleric Mostafa Mohammad, the managing director of this satellite television network, had been arrested that year and was to be tried in Iran's special clergy court. Another religious site, Shiite Online had reported at the time that one of the reasons for the director's arrest had been related to a lawsuit that had been filed the previous year accusing him of propagating self flagellation (a traditional practice among Shiites) on the Imam Hossein satellite television network. According to Fars, this network was a key channel run by the Moasese Farhangi Rasool Akram (the Cultural Institute of the Prophet) which was affiliated to a senior cleric in Qom. According to some other reports, this organization was owned by seyed Sadegh Hosseini Shirazi.
The aspect of this satellite network that has come under the strongest criticism by Fars news agency is the denouncement of Sunnis in its programs rather than the promotion of unity among Muslims under Prophet Mohammad.
The report also makes references to other similar satellite television networks such as Islam which despite being registered in California, operates offices in the Iranian cities of Mashhad and Isfahan. Abolfazl alAbbasi is another such network which has offices in Mashhad, Qom, Isfahan and Tehran, while the location of its main office and registration is not clear. Fars writes that most of the telephone connections to these satellite networks, which includes WatsApp and Viber (the free text, telephone and messaging websites), are accessible by using the international telephone access code for Iran, which is 0098, indicating that while these offices are claimed to be in other countries, they are in fact managed by individuals in Iran.
Other international satellite television networks mentioned are the international school of Imam Sadegh and the Baghi and Marjaiat networks.
Sunnis in Iran have for years been criticizing the presence of these television networks in Iran but Iranian officials have never acknowledged their presence or control from Iran. The remarks of the governor of Qom are the first such acknowledgements. Ayatollah Khamenei has at times also criticized some of the policies towards the Sunnis. For example, in the month of Farvardin (March 21 to February 20Th) this year he openly criticized the disrespect to the Sunnis. "Religious hatred should not be increased; how many times do I have to say this? I have repeatedly said but some are not willing to listen. How do guide someone who does not accept your faith? Do you start attacking his belief and his sacred principles? This will only drive them further away from you and will reduce the chances of bringing him into your fold to zero," he said.
Fars's report has been met with some criticism in the blogosphere. Bloggers have written that the satellite networks create more divisions and have accused the US, Israel and the UK of supporting these networks.
On Facebook, Ibrahim Mehrnahad, a Sunni activist, for example, wrote "Fars's revelations that these satellite networks are fed with programs and direction from Iranian cities exposes the lies that the city of Qom has offices that work to remove tensions between the religious sects."
The Islamic republic of Iran has organized numerous meetings aimed at bridging the gap and differences among the Sunnis and Shiites in the Islamic world while international human rights organizations continue to demonstrate that religious minorities in Iran lack their basic religious rights and the freedom to openly worship their faith.
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