Iranian cleric Rafsanjani says country in crisis

In a sign of endurance for Iran’s protest movement, demonstrators clashed with police Friday as one of the nation’s most powerful clerics challenged the supreme leader during Muslim prayers, saying country was in crisis in the wake of a disputed election.

The turnout of tens of thousands of worshippers for former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani’s sermon at Tehran University and the battles with police outside represented the biggest opposition show of strength in weeks. Protesters faced fierce government suppression and hundreds were arrested following the disputed June 12 presidential election.

Outside the university, protests grew from several hundred before the sermon to thousands afterward as worshippers joined in, chanting, “death to the dictator,” a reference to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Protesters were confronted by riot police and a menacing line of pro-government Basiji militiamen on motorcycles, who charged with batons. Plainclothes Basijis fired volleys of tear gas, and young protesters with green bandanas over their faces kicked the canisters across the pavement. Some set a bonfire in the street and waved their hands in victory signs. Dozens were arrested, taken away in trucks, witnesses said.

Protests, which flared following the election, had been stifled in recent weeks. The sometimes tearful sermon by Rafsanjani could be a significant boost to the movement’s staying power. It was an open challenge to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, aired live on nationwide radio from one of the country’s most potent political stages. By openly showing the divisions in the leadership, it punched a hole in efforts by Khamenei and hard-line clerics to end the controversy over Ahmadinejad’s re-election.

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Worshippers chanted “azadi, azadi,” Persian for “freedom,” during Rafsanjani’s sermon, his first since the election. Opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi, who claims to have won the election, sat among the worshippers, attending the country’s main prayer service for the first time since the turmoil began.

Many of those gathered wore headbands or wristbands in his campaign color green, or had green prayer rugs, crowding the former soccer field where prayers are held and spilling into nearby streets.

Rafsanjani denounced the government crackdown on protests and called for the release the hundreds detained.

He reprimanded the clerical leadership for not listening to people’s complaints over the election, which was declared a victory for Ahmadinejad despite opposition accusations of fraud.

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