Imprisoned Iranian Ayatollah Offers Hanukkah Greetings to Jews
by Stephen Schwartz
The name of Iranian ayatollah Seyyed Hossein Kazemeyni Boroujerdi is little known outside his own country, which is unfortunate. Ayatollah Boroujerdi has been held in Tehran's notorious Evin prison since 2006.
Boroujerdi, aged 52, is an heir to a distinguished Shia clerical family. He was born in Tehran and educated in the Shia religious center of Qom. Like his father, Grand Ayatollah Seyyed Mohammad Ali Kazemeyni Boroujerdi (1924-2002), Boroujerdi preaches the pre-Khomeini interpretation of Iranian Shiism, which calls for religion to be kept apart from politics. His health has been badly affected by the conditions of his imprisonment, yet he has continued, from his cell, to denounce the regime of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Unlike the competing clerics who challenged the ruling duo in last year's challenged balloting, Boroujerdi has become a consistent champion of secularism. He has declared, "the regime is adamant that either people adhere to political Islam or be jailed, exiled or killed. Its behavior is no different from that of Osama bin Laden or Mullah Omar."
In November, according to the Iranian blog Voice of Freedom, which serves as a global forum for the Boroujerdi case, five of Boroujerdi's female supporters and one male acolyte were arrested – for the fourth time. Their names also deserve to be known: Sayyedeh Tayebeh Husseini, Narges Ghaffarzadeh, Roya Araghi, Maryam Azimi, Forogh Hematyar, and Mohammad Reza Sadeghi. In the first week of December, the conditions under which the six were held were unknown to their supporters within and beyond Iran's borders. On December 6, another Boroujerdi partisan, Mohammad Mehman-Nazad, 39-years-old, was arrested and disappeared into the void of Iran's repressive system.
Boroujerdi and his group have lately issued a message to the world's Jews, congratulating them on the Hanukkah holiday. Their knowledge of Jewish customs may be faulty – their statement confused Hanukkah, the Feast of Lights commemorating the liberation of the Jewish Temple from foreign dominance by the Maccabean revolt some 23 centuries ago with the Jewish New Year, or Rosh Hashanah, which fell during September of this year. But their sentiments were manifestly sincere and clearly repudiated the anti-Jewish demagogy of Ahmadinejad.
As posted here on another pro-Boroujerdi blog, the message explicitly condemns Jew-baiting by the Tehran tyrants: "We join in the celebration of all religious beliefs and traditions ... We come to this joint celebration through our common vision for freedom and peace." The group contrasts its attitude with that of "the current anti-Semitic regime of Iran," which it accuses of sowing animosity and hatred between the descendants of Abraham, the common ancestor of Jews and Arabs, and the progenitor of monotheism.
Boroujerdi's own message describes the lights of Hanukkah as divine, specifying, "We celebrate the light (Hanukkah)… My belief about different religions and creeds in different countries is that any religious belief that brings us closer to the Source (God) is the truth. This force will lead humanity towards enlightenment. On this great day, (Hanukkah) we celebrate the unity among the believers of God's light." His disciples added, "All followers of Mr. Boroujerdi join in this celebration of light with all Jewish people around the world. With hope that the sunlight of truth will free us from the darkness of injustice and ignorance, we hope for a world full of peace and brotherhood among God's children."
Although his name and those of his arrested followers are typically overshadowed in foreign discussions of Iranian affairs, Boroujerdi commands considerable respect among his fellow-victims of clerical rule. When he was arrested in 2006, he maintained a network of 100 telephone lines to communicate with his audience, and led prayers for crowds so large they could only be accommodated in a sports stadium.
This year, Hanukkah season coincides with the Shia Muslim commemorations of Ashura, marking the martyrdom of Husayn, the grandson of Muhammad, in the first Islamic century. Ashura symbolizes the fight for justice, as pursued by Husayn against the Islamic tyrants of his time. The Tehran regime will, as in the past, utilize Ashura to identify itself with the ideals of Husayn. But Ayatollah Boroujerdi and his devotees, in their commitment to secularism and to mutual respect between religions, represent a far more appropriate embodiment of the tradition of Ashura than the evildoers who still impose their cruelties on Iran in the name of religion.