A prominent Sunni cleric who directed unprecedented criticism at Iran's supreme leader over a bloody crackdown in his hometown appeared unbowed this week by warnings from security forces, pressing his demands for more rights for his minority and voicing support for other groups in country-wide unrest.
Molavi Abdolhamid has long been a dissenting voice seeking better living standards and more political representation for the Sunni minority in the mostly Shi'ite Islamic Republic, including the Baluchi ethnic group to which he belongs and the Kurdish population. Iran's government denies discrimination against Sunnis.
His criticism has escalated since the death of a 22-year-old Kurdish woman in police custody on Sept. 16 ignited nationwide protests, in which more than 250 people have been killed according to rights groups.
Some of the worst unrest has been in areas home to minority ethnic groups with long-standing grievances against the state, including Abdolhamid's province of Sistan-Baluchistan and Kurdish regions. Officials have blamed separatist militants for the unrest.
In the deadliest incident, security forces shot dead 66 people on Sept. 30 in Abdolhamid's hometown of Zahedan in a crackdown following Friday prayers, according to Amnesty International. Officials blamed separatist militants for opening fire on a police station, triggering a shootout.
Abdolhomid, who had denounced the killings as a "crime", on Friday dramatically raised the stakes, saying Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and other officials were "responsible before God."
Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guards, a hardline military force used by the state to crush political unrest, issued on Saturday what it said was a "last warning" to Abdolhamid not to agitate the youth, saying it "may cost you dearly".
The white bearded cleric appeared unbowed at a meeting of his inner circle on Monday, wearing a turban and seated among a group of his close aides in a video seen by Reuters.
"One positive thing that we can take from the events is that many people have shed their fears," he told the group, placing the protests of recent weeks in the context of what he said was a struggle for Sunni rights since the Islamic revolution.
"Unfortunately, officials are not listening. For 43 years we've been shouting for the (rights of) Sunnis and the Baluch who are the owners of this land and have been defending the area," he said.
Abdolhamid, contacted by Reuters via an intermediary, declined to comment for this story. Iranian authorities did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
The violence in Zahedan shows how the protests that began after Mahsa Amini's death in police custody have swept up Iran's ethnic groups, challenging government control in parts of the country where authorities have ruthlessly extinguished past dissent.
Abdolhamid has said the strong reaction to Amini's death showed "the Iranian people are angry all over the country", according to a statement posted on his website on Sept. 20 in which he cited severe economic crises, corruption, capital punishment and "the intensification of religious pressure on minorities".
The Baluch minority, estimated to number up to 2 million people, has faced discrimination and repression for decades, according to human rights groups. Sistan-Baluchistan province, in southeastern Iran bordering Pakistan and Afghanistan, is one of the country's poorest and has seen repeated killings by security forces in recent years.
Abdolhadi Gemshadzehi, a university lecturer in Malaysia who is in contact with Abdolhamid, said the cleric was undeterred by the authorities' response.
"He is not afraid and is not in hiding even as plainclothes security forces cruise the streets of Zahedan with their weapons in full view," Gemshadzehi told Reuters.
Reuters was not able independently to confirm the security situation in Zahedan.
Abdolhamid hails from a humble background. He was born in 1947 in a village near Zahedan. He grew up in a religious family, joining Koranic schools and studying elementary Islamic books, before travelling to Pakistan for further education.
For the past 30 years, Abdolhamid has been delivering speeches and sermons at the Grand Makki mosque of Zahedan and elsewhere. In that time, he has built strong support within his region's Sunni population.
His sermons have long called for equal rights for Sunnis - who make up an estimated 5% of Iran's roughly 84 million people - criticising a lack of economic opportunities and freedom of worship.
In recent years, he has asked Iranian leaders to put at least one Sunni as a cabinet minister, vice president or deputy minister, to no avail. His comments have angered Iranian authorities, who placed him under a travel ban in 2017.
That year, he wrote to Khamenei urging the state to pay greater attention to Sunnis. The supreme leader's office wrote back and said Iran's government does not allow discrimination or inequality.
In 2018, Abdolhamid sent a letter to neighbouring Iraq's top Shi'ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, urging him to act as a mediator with Iranian authorities to help end the "massive discrimination" suffered by Sunnis.
He complained that Sunnis in Iran were denied opportunities in higher management and did not even have a proper mosque in Tehran, according to excerpts of the letter on his website.
Despite the criticism, Abdolhamid has been careful to portray himself as a moderate who can work with the government if needed.
"He is a mild-mannered cleric," Gemshadzehi told Reuters. "He rarely loses his temper and always tries to maintain control."
Iranian officials have occasionally counted on him in times of crisis. He spearheaded mediation efforts with the hardline Baluchi Islamist insurgent group Jaish al-Adl to obtain the release of four Iranian border guards who were kidnapped in 2014. The group, denounced by Tehran as terrorists, has carried out repeated attacks on Iranian security forces.
Abdolhamid has also taken pragmatic steps such as backing hardline President Ebrahim Raisi in last year's election.
Disappointed with the failure of Iran's previous reformist government to provide basic social and political rights, Sunni leaders made a strategic decision to back those who they believe have the power to make a real difference in their lives.
Although Abdolhamid has had a tense relationship with the Iranian authorities, he has occasionally met with top officials, including Raisi at a gathering with other Sunni scholars in May.
OFFICIALS BLAMED MILITANTS
The violent crackdown in Zahedan after Friday prayers on Sept. 30 dramatically raised tensions.
Popular anger ahead of the shooting was fuelled by allegations of the rape of a local teenaged girl by a police officer. Authorities have said the case is being investigated.
While officials blamed separatist militants for the violence, Abdolhamid denounced an attempted cover-up and said that police shot at small group of stone-throwing youths before opening fire on unarmed civilians attending the prayer meeting.
"Everyone should know that the truth will never be hidden," he said in a statement on his website. "This incident awakened our people. Our people knew that they should demand their rights openly without any considerations."
The Sistan-Baluchistan region has for years been a hotbed of militancy, where Iranian security forces have been attacked by Baluchi militants groups - such as Jaish ul-Adl and Ansar Al-Furquan - who say they want better rights for the ethnic minority.
Cornelius Adebahr, an Iran expert with the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the risk of a broader ethnic uprising was real in parts of Iran even if the authorities were seeking to serve their own agenda by blaming the current unrest on militant secessionists.
"There are so many grievances that hold the potential for separatist tendencies," he said. "Should the regime wobble, some people - not the young or feminists marching now - might think it to be an opportune moment to change the status quo."
(c) 2022, Reuters