Crackdown intensifies on Sunni clerics and ethnic leaders in Iran

Crackdown intensifies on Sunni clerics and ethnic leaders in Iran
5 min read
30 January, 2023
Iranian authorities arrest and summon Sunni Baluch clerics to contain the protests in cities with a Sunni majority.
Iranian worshippers carrying placards while taking part a protest over Koran burning after Tehran's Friday Prayers ceremonies at the Imam Khomeini Grand mosque, 27 January 2023. [Getty]

Molavi Mohammad Hussein Gorgij, 81-year-old Sunni Baluch cleric and religious leader, was summoned to a brunch of the Islamic Revolutionary Court in the city of Gorgan on 12 January. But he did not show up in court. Neither could the security forces enter his house in Galikosh, some 100 kilometres northeast of the provincial capital Gorgan, as Gorgij's devotees had set up tents outside his home to protect him.

Since December 2021, pressure has been mounting on Gorgij because of his remarks during a Friday prayer sermon, when he said the historical facts demonstrated "if Shia people do not acknowledge Omar's rightful caliphate, then they should also doubt about the legitimacy of Shia Imams".

Unlike the Sunni people, followers of the Shia branch of Islam believe that Ali bin Abi Talib was the rightful successor of Prophet Mohammad, and the twelve imams they believe in their caliphate were Ali's sons and descendants. 

Following those remarks, Gorgij was sacked by Iran's Friday Prayer Imams Policy Council, run by Shia celeries appointed by the supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. However, his followers continued participating in unofficial Friday prayer sermons he held.

When the 2022 anti-establishment movement rocked the country, Gorgij was one of the Sunni clerics who supported the protestors and lambasted the Shia Ayatollahs ruling the country.

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On 20 January, he went further and criticised Khamenei, who has ultimate power in the country.

"The person who can't listen to [the opponents] does not deserve to rule the country," he said to a large group of supporters who gathered in front of his house and held the Friday prayer on the street.

Sunni religious leaders under pressure

Like Gorgij, several other Sunni clerics have been targeted by the security forces and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) since last September. 

When demonstrations spread in all Iranian cities after Mahsa Amini's death in police custody, several Sunni religious leaders used the opportunity to address decades-long discrimination against the religious and racial minority groups in Iran.

The official data say that the Sunnis make up to 10 per cent of the country's population of about 86 million. The largest population of Sunnis are the Baluch and Kurds living in Sistan-o Baluchistan, South Khorasan, Golestan, Kurdistan and West Azerbaijan provinces.

The latest wave of pressure on Sunni religious leaders began from the country's most underprivileged province Sistan-o Baluchistan. On 12 December, Molavi Abdolghaffar Naghshbandi was summoned and arrested at Mashhad's intelligence ministry provincial office.  

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Naqshbandi was the cleric who first revealed a case related to the rape of a teenage Baluch girl by a police colonel in the port city of Chabahar. The revelation led to protests in Sistan-o Baluchistan and the Zahedan's Bloody Friday incident.

On 30 September, during the Friday prayer in the southeastern city of Zahedan, Molavi Abdolhamid Ismaeilzehi said that his information confirmed Naqshbandi's report about the rape case.

Ismaeilzehi, the most famous and respected Sunni leader in Iran, urged the authorities to bring the perpetrator to justice.

After the Friday prayer, his followers participated in a demonstration during which at least 82 were killed by the IRGC and security forces. 

Since then, Ismaeilzehi has been under tremendous pressure from the IRGC and Supreme Leader's representatives to stop preaching against the establishment, a demand he has so far rejected. 

On 20 January's Friday prayer, Ismaeilzehi said, "Don't jail the youth, instead talk with them ... don't torture them ... don't execute them."

Directly targeting this well-known and prestigious Sunni religious leader could have high expenses for the establishment, causing outrage among his followers. So, the less-known Sunni clerics in the province were instead targeted harshly.

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On 8 December, Molavi Abdolwahed Rigi was kidnapped from the mosque where he was the prayer imam in the small Baluch city of Khash. Three days later, his dead body was found on the side of a rural road with three bullets in his head. 

Targeting Sunni leaders from Kurdistan to Baluchistan

The imprisonment, torture, and killing of Sunni clerics, who have not accepted the country's ruling system, is not new in Iran.

Five months after Iran's dictatorial monarchy collapsed in 1979, Shia Islam was announced as the country's official religion. Soon, the Shia fanatics pushed the Sunni ethnic leaders and clerics out of the circle of power. 

Those like Ahmad Moftizadeh, who expressed objection to new rulers, paid a heavy price. Moftizadeh was a Kurdish religious leader and, in 1983, was arrested and sentenced to five years in prison. But even after the end of his prison term, he was not freed and was kept in jail until 1993.

Moftizadeh died six months after his release while he was under house arrest. Nasi Sobuhani and Faruq Farsad also had a similar fate under the rule of a Shia theocracy. The two well-known scholars followed Moftizadeh's political and religious school of thought.

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Subhani was executed in 1990, and Farsad was killed in 1996 during a series of assassinations of intellectuals, writers and political activists known as "the chain murders". 

Three decades ago, most cases of executions, assassinations, and kidnapping of Sunni religious leaders occurred in Kurdistan, which was the epicentre of opposition to the establishment. Today, the Baluch leaders in Sisatn-o Baluchistan and Glostan provinces are being targeted for the same reason.

Since last December, the establishment succeeded in containing protests in all major cities with a three-month-long brutal crackdown that left at least 481 deaths.

Since then, the only organised demonstrations in the country have taken place in Sistan-o Baluchistan after the Friday prayer of Sunni imams. A move that the establishment responded to by arresting and imprisoning the Sunni imams.