Invasion of the Corpse Snatchers

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Courtesy of SHIRAZI.ORG.UK

Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Hosseini Shirazi

A TIMEeurope special feature

Friday, Dec. 21, 2001
The Islamic Republic of Iran routinely harasses political dissidents while they're alive, but until now has refrained from punishing them posthumously. Followers of Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Hosseini Shirazi — who died of a stroke last week in the holy city of Qom — have been arrested and imprisoned over the years for supporting the cleric's opposition to the Islamic regime.

With Shirazi's death, the saga of state intimidation and years of house arrest seemed over. But special police in camouflage gear stormed the funeral procession, beat pall-bearers and stole the Ayatollah's corpse, which fell from its coffin twice during the scuffle. "If it's true, it will be among the blackest moments in the Islamic Republic's history," whispered one aghast cleric in Tehran.

Black-clad mourners filled Qom's Chaharmardan Street as they proceeded toward Shirazi's home. In his will, the cleric asked to be buried temporarily in Qom until it was possible to be removed permanently to the holy Iraqi city of Karbala, where he spent his early years. The security forces descended on the procession and spirited the corpse away to a waiting minibus. With neither the presence of his family nor their permission, they buried Shirazi at the Hazrat Massoumeh Shrine in Qom. Still reeling from the sight of the cleric's corpse falling into the street, one of Shirazi's daughters-in-law said local authorities prevented his transfer to a better hospital in Tehran shortly after his stroke. "After this we suspect everything," she said.

The next day, few Iranians knew such a dramatic scene had transpired. State television broadcast orderly scenes from the funeral procession, showing supporters in the unlikely pose of hoisting photos of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who sent a message of condolence to Shirazi's family. Iranian newspapers reported nothing of the disturbance in Qom, and made no mention of the cleric's views in obituaries. The total news blackout, along with the refusal of officials to comment, reveals just how threatened the establishment feels by even the quiet resistance of clerics.

The desecration of Shirazi's corpse is a monumental embarrassment for the regime, not least because of the cleric's rank: he was one of fewer than 20 Iranian grand ayatollahs, the highest order in Shi'a Islam. And coming at a time when the Islamic Republic has "grown up" — which seems to mean that opposition activists are railroaded through the courts instead of being left strangled by the roadside — the raid is a clear message: even in these kinder, gentler times, crossing the lines can have perilous consequences. In Shirazi's case, the lines included questioning the supreme religious leader's absolute power and the theological merits of the man who currently holds that position, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. These academic-sounding matters are at the center of a fierce battle in Iran between progressive mullahs like Shirazi who want to democratize the country and hardliners who justify their repressive rule in God's name.

Over the past decade, the Islamic regime has arrested around 500 clerics for their democratic interpretation of religious principles. Even by these harsh standards, though, the macabre disruption at Shirazi's funeral shows how Iran is still trying to reconcile theocracy with democracy.

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