Not all Teheran behind ayatollahs in anti-pope criticism
by Darius Mirzai

In the eyes of many Iranians, Benedict XVI enjoys considerable moral prestige for his criticism of the links between religion and violence. But Christians face the threat of increased marginalization.

Teheran (AsiaNews) – In ayatollah land, not everyone agrees that the pope should be rapped. Quite the contrary, some think his criticism of the links between religion and violence vests him with great moral prestige. But the Christian community risks being marginalized more than ever. Yesterday, the Foreign Affairs Minister called the Vatican Nuncio, Mgr Angelo Mottola (described as "Cardinal Angelo Michele" by the official news agency IRNA) to express "profound anxiety and objection to the anti-Islamic statements of Benedict XVI".

For days, the mullah Ahmad Khatami has repeated clamorous statements against the pope, who "has not even read the Koran", who "backs the policies of Bush", and so on. But only 200 people participated in a rally held yesterday by the theological schools of Qom (the birthplace of Khomeini). This could be a sign of weakness or else, perhaps, an impact of the statement by Cardinal Bertone, reported on the front pages of all Iranian newspapers. The press is talking about the "apology" of the pope to Muslims.

Another sign of detachment from anti-pope rhetoric is the stand taken by the ex-president, Mohammed Khatami, who has suspended judgment on the speech of Benedict XVI in Regensburg until he reads it himself. Even the current Iranian president Ahmadinejad has prudently called for "Islamic theological analysis" into the papal address.

In reality, the Shiite clergy in Iran is using the polemic about the pope for its new upsurge in victimization. The Iranian year 1384 (2205 – 2006), which started shortly after the controversy of the Muhammad cartoons, has been dedicated by the authorities in Teheran to the figure of the prophet of Islam. For some months, the Iranian regime has been availing itself of every opportunity to present itself as the victim of "Islamophobia", partly not to lag behind in the race to lead international Islamism and partly to alienate people from economic problems and domestic politics.

So the pope was criticized for having called into question the link between Islam and the jihad.

But that the concept of "jihad" should be condemned is not an insult for the majority of Iranians. On the streets of Teheran, there are large frescoes extolling the glory of the local "shahid" (so-called martyrs). There is also one of a Palestinian mother who is ready to kill herself, with the slogan: "I love my child, but I love martyrdom more". But nearly no one believes them: passers-by, somewhat embarrassed or disgusted, pay no attention. After all, in Teheran, after the "divine victory" of the Shiite Nasrallah in Lebanon, there were no manifestations of joy. For the Iranian regime, it is becoming increasingly difficult to use the pope's words to boost its Islamic politics. Perhaps, in a few days, time, it will serve the purposes of propaganda better to exaggerate the import of the "apologies of the Church towards the Muslims".

The "Assembly of Experts", a group of around 80 mullahs who have the power to choose or even to depose the Supreme Guide, yesterday made public a statement of apologetics about the jihad, an expression of the struggle of the oppressed. The assembly condemned the "anti-Islamic statements" of Pope Ratzinger and attributed them to the influence of arrogant political leaders. On a political level, the assembly questioned why the pope forgot the crimes committed by the Zionist regime (Israel) and failed to mention problems in Iraq, Afghanistan, and so on.

For many Iranians, the important thing in the current controversy is what has not been said: the interlocutor of Manuel II Paleologus, in the controversial quote in the papal address, is Inb Hazn, a Persian. The pope's rejection of the link between religion and violence is used to boost local criticism of the ayatollahs. And no one has forgotten that the German pope went on pilgrimage to Auschwitz, and this is a further criticism of the Iranian leadership that denies the Holocaust. Thus, in several circles, the words of the pope drew deep emotions that revealed the moral prestige enjoyed by the Successor of Peter in the Islamic Republic.

After years of Khomeinism, the Iranian people are largely anti-clerical, but religiosity and patriotism are strong. Ahmad Khatami will not convince anyone of his own sincerity, but the image of Christianity in Iranian society could suffer because of the present controversy.

What will happen to Christians in Iran? The tendency to exile and semi-forced conversion will continue thanks to discriminatory laws and social marginalization. It is likely that some Christian MPs will be forced to voice modern criticisms against the Vatican, the price to pay to be left in peace. Soon, all this controversy will be forgotten except by extremists, by definition closed to dialogue, and alas, by Christian minorities. Yesterday, 200 seminarians of Qom were on the streets, but some Christians were prompted by fear to stay in, and did not go to church.