TEHRAN, Iran – Thousands of supporters of Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, Iran’s most senior dissident cleric, marched through streets in his hometown and descended upon the country’s main theological center Monday to mourn his passing just days before the climax of a politically charged religious commemoration.
Montazeri, a pillar of the Islamic Revolution three decades ago who became a staunch defender of the nation’s current opposition movement, died late Saturday of complications due to advanced age, diabetes and asthma, his doctor told state television. He was 87.
His death could further galvanize the protest movement that grew out of disputed presidential elections in June but that has been driven as much, if not more, by emotion over perceived injustice as rational political calculation.
Montazeri was an important figure in Iran’s post-revolutionary period, a respected and creative Islamic jurist and political theorist. He was slated to take over as the country’s supreme leader until a falling-out with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founding father of the Islamic Republic, over killings of political prisoners in the late 1980s. Montazeri became a defiant critic of the revolt he helped create.
“Ayatollah Montazeri will be remembered in the history of Iran as brave, open-minded and willing to say the truth at any time, even when encountering danger,” Fazel Maybodi, a mid-ranking reformist cleric and disciple of Montazeri, said in a telephone interview from the city of Qom, the country’s religious center. “He was a faithful source of emulation in Islamic jurisprudence who initiated a huge change in the mentality and attitudes of the senior clergy.”
Montazeri’s death comes as the opposition prepares to hold protests to coincide with ceremonies marking the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, a grandson of the prophet Muhammad and a revered figure in Iran’s majority Shiite Muslim faith.
Adding to the potential for unrest, the religiously significant seventh day following Montazeri’s death will fall on Ashoura, the often-frenzied culmination of Muharram, when Shiites pour into the streets to beat their chests and weep in ritual mourning of Hussein.