November 27, 1997 in Nation/World

Five Million Demonstrate In Support Of Iranian Leader, Denounce Cleric

Associated Press

Five million members of a volunteer militia demonstrated nationwide Wednesday in support of Iran’s spiritual leader and against an outspoken cleric, the official news agency reported.

“Those who have tried to break unity among the people by disrupting public security and sowing discord … have committed treason against the people, the revolution and the country,” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on national television. “They should be punished according to the law.”

Khamenei apparently was referring to Grand Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri, who caused an uproar earlier this month when he questioned the legitimacy of Iran’s clerical rule.

Clerical rule has led to competing secular and religious power centers. Montazeri reportedly urged the relatively moderate president, Mohammad Khatami, to resign unless Khamenei’s powers were curbed.

The Islamic Republic News Agency said members of the paramilitary force known as the Basij assembled at military bases, public squares and stadiums in major cities. About a third of them were women in black gowns and red headbands inscribed with religious slogans.

Demonstrators carried the national flag and shouted, “Long live Velayat-e Faqih” - or rule of the clergy - and “Death to the enemies of Velyat-e Faqih.”

Montazeri, who is in his 70s, had been the political heir to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Shortly before Khomeini’s death in 1989, Montazeri fell from grace for being too critical of the cleric’s hard-line policies. He has been under house arrest since then.

Last week, hard-line militants demonstrated outside Montazeri’s house. Guards whisked the ayatollah away, but nobody has said where he is. There have been smaller protests almost every day this week.

© Copyright 1997 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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