As Iraqi Clerics Go Home, Talk of Schism With Shiite Hard-Liners in Iran

QUM, Iran, April 26 — A black-turbaned Iraqi cleric, his belongings packed in a small blue bag sitting at his feet, led about 50 clerics in prayer. Kneeling on red Persian rugs, the men, many of whom who had spent the last two decades in Iran, gathered to catch the train that would take them to Iraq.

“I am going first to Kazemein for a pilgrimage and then will go to Baghdad to find a home for my family,” said Muhammad Hassani, a 52-year-old mid-ranking cleric, who had lived in Iran since 1980. Mr. Hassani, the father of 10, had presided over a religious school in Qum, one of the 15 designed for Iraqis. But now it was time to perform his mission back home in Iraq, he said.

Many people who follow the course of religious affairs here believe that the return of Shiite clerics to Iraq, and the revival of Iraq’s historically holy city of Najaf, may pose a serious threat to the rule of the hard-line ayatollahs in Iran.

Najaf is expected to become the center of Shiite faith once again when influential clerics return and begin teaching at its seminaries. Some high-ranking Iranian clerics who believe in freer religious studies, such as Ayatollah Javad Tabrizi, have also said that they would go to Najaf when stability returns.

Since the Islamic revolution here in 1979, Iran’s hard-line religious leadership has defined Shiite Islam for its 120 million followers around the world. But analysts say that Iran’s status as the leader of Shiism will be undermined once Najaf develops its own brand of the faith, which is expected to be more moderate than the one Iran favors.

This month in an article on a reformist Web site, Forouzan Assef Nakhai, an Iranian journalist, wrote, “The Islamic Revolution will suffer defeat if Qum fails to produce a model in which Islam would reconcile with democracy,” in its competition with Najaf.

For more than 1,300 years, Najaf was the center of the Shiite world. The son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad, Ali, who was the founder of the faith, is buried in Najaf and his famous mosque is still an important pilgrimage site for his followers.

Five other imams, all successors of Ali, are buried in other cities of Iraq, including his son, Hussein, whose death in battle has evoked the cult of martyrdom among Shiites.

The most prestigious theology schools were in Najaf, where influential clerics studied.

But when the Baath Party, and later Mr. Hussein, put pressure on the free practice of religion and promotion of the faith, many fled the country, and Najaf lost its vigor. Mr. Hussein killed Shiite clerics and restricted their mobility.

The coincidence of the repression in Iraq with the victory of the Islamic Revolution in predominantly Shiite Iran in 1979, with religious leaders coming to power, provided the opportunity for Qum to become a center for education and interpretation of the faith.

Although Qum seminaries, with 30,000 clerics, are well developed, the city lacks the historical clout of Najaf. Qum, 80 miles south of Tehran, is built around the tomb of the sister of Imam Reza, the eighth successor of Muhammad, according to Shiism.

“The purpose of the Islamic revolution was to create an Islamic state so that it would become the leadership for the Muslim world,” said one Western diplomat. “But now Najaf is back.”

Iran has also been caught in a vigorous struggle between its hard-liners and reformers, led by President Mohammad Khatami, who favors a more open social and political system.

Hard-line clerics contend that their legitimacy comes from their stature as God’s representatives on earth, and they oppose a more open interpretation of Islam. Iran’s supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has often sided with hard-liners. Thus, reformers have suffered serious setbacks.

In addition, the hard-liners have tried to expand their influence beyond Iran to elsewhere in the Islamic world.

For more than 20 years, Iran has provided money for the Iraqi Shiite opposition party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, led by Ayatollah Baqer Hakim. The party has close ties to Mr. Khamenei, and its troops, the Badr Brigade, were trained by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. Iran tried to use its influence over Mr. Hakim to convince Shiite leaders to denounce the American-led war against Saddam Hussein.

A religious decree issued from Qum early this month by an Iraqi cleric, Kadhem al Husseini al-Haeri, is widely believed to be a result of his loyalty to the hard-line establishment. He called on Shiite Iraqis to return home and promote people’s awareness against the Great Satan, a term used by hard-line Iranians for the United States.

Yet, Iraqi clerics who are returning to Iraq say they are tired of seeing their faith dominated by Iran.

“Iraq is a holy country and we do not need Iran,” Mr. Hassani said. “It is independent and has its own differences with Iran. We do not need to look at Iran as our model.”

For two weeks, the Supreme Council has been helping volunteer clerics return to Iraq. Darol-hakameh Institute in Qum, which belongs to the council, has provided the clerics with train tickets and documents to cross the border.

“They are returning to preach the faith and help bring order. We do not ask them what kind of political affiliation they have,” said Mohsen Hakim, a staff member at the institute who said he too would go to Baghdad to help organize clerics.

Some Iraqis say that living in Iran and witnessing the kind of challenges facing this theocracy has convinced them that the interference by religion into affairs of state should be limited.

“The responsibility of political Islam to solve political and economic problems that the state is faced with has put enormous pressure on the seminaries in Qum,” said Hamam Hamoudi, a mid-ranking Iraqi cleric who said he would also leave for Baghdad this week.

Still, Mr. Hamoudi added that the Iraqi clerics were eager to return and have a share in the future government. “We do not want an Islamic state like Iran, but the Shiites are 60 percent of the population and want to be part of the government after years of suppression.”

Ayatollah Ali Muhammad Sistani, Iraq’s most prominent Shiite leader in Najaf, has also objected to the interference of clerics in politics.

Ayatollah Said Hakim, another Shiite leader in Najaf, says clerics should limit their role in politics to expressing their opinion, said his son, Riaz Hakim. “But he believes in a kind of democracy in which people can choose on their own, without the opinions being imposed on them,” the son added. “Not like Iran where the supreme leader is not elected with the direct vote of people.”

Najaf will become more important if the situation remains as it is in Iran with the way hard-liners have opposed reforms, said Mohsen Kadivar, a high-ranking Iranian dissident cleric who spent 18 months in jail for his criticism of Mr. Khamenei. But, he added, “the situation can change if the reformers manage to overcome some of the obstacles.”



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