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Iranian Cleric Warns Opposition Not to Use Religious Ceremony to Protest


A top pro-government cleric is warning Iranians Friday not to take advantage of one of Shi'ite Islam's most sacred holy days to create a free-for-all protest against the government. He also told Christians around the world that they should behave more like Christ.

Pro-government cleric Ahmad Khatami used the traditional Friday prayer gathering at Tehran University to warn the opposition against exploiting the Ashura holiday for political purposes.

He says Ashura must not be used by some to sow division. This, he says, would betray the lofty ideals of the great martyr Imam Hussein, if the mourning were turned into a display of disunity.

Pilgrims are on their way to the holy city of Karbala to mark the solemn Ashura holiday. The day will be observed Sunday, when Shi'ite pilgrims mourn the seventh-century killing of Imam Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad.

The celebration follows a series of clashes between Iranian security forces and anti-government protesters who gathered to mark the passing of Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri. Montazeri was considered a spiritual patron of Iran's reformist movement and his death has re-energized the opposition.

Pro-government cleric Khatami has blamed the opposition Green Movement, led by defeated presidential candidate Mirhossein Mousavi, for creating unrest this past week during Monday's funeral for Ayatollah Montazeri.

He scolds the opposition for using Ayatollah Montazeri's funeral to chant what he calls pro-American and pro-Israeli slogans, calling their behavior a betrayal.

Mehrdad Khonsari of the London-based Center for Arab and Iranian Studies says he doubts the government's use of force will keep protesters off the streets.

"I think that there is no question that they will resort to every kind of action that they can think of in order to play down whatever exhibition the opposition wants to put on," he said. "In the course of the last six months, they have tried to play down or put down every occasion when the opposition has come out in protest and this upcoming event on Sunday will be no different."

"But, I don't think that they are capable of silencing a crowd that has taken a life of its own, and it's something that can't be extinguished by simple use of brute force," he added.

Meanwhile, the hardline Tehran prayer leader also called on the world's Christians to behave more like Jesus Christ, and in his words, "treat Iran with justice" and recognize its right to nuclear technology.