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Iran's Politics Colors Ramadan Prayer Dispute

A debate over the potential return of one of Iran's greatest classical singers for a prayer recitation has provided a fresh test of hard-line domination of state TV nearly a decade after unrest that roiled the country's establishment.

The performance of Rabbana by Mohammad Reza Shajarian was a Ramadan fixture for three decades before it was eliminated from programming after comments by Shajarian sympathetic to reformist critics of Iran's 2009 presidential election.

President Hassan Rouhani, who was reelected to a second four-year term earlier this month, has vowed to seek greater openness for Iranians in the face of hard-line control of state media through the country's powerful, unelected leadership.

The 76-year-old Shajarian's version of the prayer used to air on state TV and radio at sunset during the Islamic month of Ramadan, signaling that it was time to break the daily fast and begin the iftar.

But Shajarian expressed support for the opposition before the disputed reelection of then-President Mahmud Ahmadinejadi eight years ago and criticized the crackdown that followed -- hundreds were rounded up or jailed and several former opposition leaders remain under house arrest.

Last week, the government-controlled Iran daily reported that Culture Minister Reza Salehi Amiri had called on state television to air Shajarian's Rabbana during this year's Ramadan, which began on May 27.

But Javad Larijani, who represents the hard-line Judiciary on the national council that supervises state broadcasting, responded by saying airing the prayer would represent a violation of "Islamic norms of recitation."

Larijani suggested that because "defending [Shajarian] has become a political dispute," the prayer broadcast would be overshadowed, adding, "This is contrary to the Islamic principles of recitation."

Larijani's stance was sharply criticized by Hamid Reza Nourbakhsh, the head of the Iranian musicians' advocacy group House of Music, who suggested that Larijani lacked the religious authority to comment on the topic.

"I'd like to ask from which position of expertise is Larijani [commenting on] Maestro Shajarian's Rabbana?" Nourbakhsh asked. "Is he a recitation expert? A Koran expert? Or a commentator?"

President Rouhani, a political veteran whose rise has helped bring reformists and relative moderates back out of the political wilderness, responded by posting Shajarian's version of Rabbana on his Instagram page, which has 1.6 million followers.

Rouhani criticized the ban on the singer in a presidential debate ahead of the May 19 election that gave him a second term.

“How can we think of elevating science and culture when we refuse to air a Ramadan prayer and Rabbana that people enjoy?” Rouhani asked.

Criticism of Shajarian's ban has increased following reports that he is battling kidney cancer.

Shajarian’s Rabanna was earlier this month registered on Iran’s national-heritage list as compiled by Iran's Cultural Heritage, Tourism, and Handicrafts Organization.