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Seminaries In Iran Get Millions Of Dollars But Who Do They Serve?

Al-Mostafa Seminary for foreign students in Qom. Some have accused the seminary of training Shiite political ideologues who return to their home countries. File photo

Ayatollah Abdollah Javadi Amoli, one of the most prominent Shiite clerics in Iran, has criticized seminaries for being "non-productive".

Amoli's criticism questions allocating trillions of rials of government budgets to religious institutions while a prominent Iranian critic questions the ayatollah's own performance as an attempt to glorify the role of the Supreme Leader in the Islamic Republic.

Speaking at a ceremony on December 27, when Amoli introduced his new book Tahrir al-Osoul on the principles of Shiism, he said: "We have two types of clerics: Those who are innovative producers of knowledge and the ones who are [knowledge] dealers."

Javadi Amoli explained that "knowledge dealers are those who constantly cite verdicts by previous scholars. This is a kind of dealership devoid of productivity and innovation."

"There are 50,000 clerics at the seminaries," said Javadi Amoli reminding that there were top clerics at much smaller seminaries in the past who wrote valuable books on religious jurisprudence.

"We do not have creative top clerics among the current 50 thousand," he regretted, calling for a change that would stop the trend.

In another assessment, Ayatollah Khamenei's chief of staff, Ayatollah Mohammad Mohammadi Golpayegani said there are 80,000 clerics in Iranian seminaries, but society gets very little out of it.

There are conflicting reports about the extent of the budget Iranian government allocates to seminaries. According to reformist news website Eslahat News, The Rouhani administration allocated $27 million to seminaries for three months between late March and late June 2018.

This includes the funds allocated to the Supreme Council of the Seminaries, the Seminaries Service Centers, Women's Seminaries, The Islamic Propagation Office of the Qom Seminary, the Planning Council of Khorasan Seminaries and the Al-Mustafa Seminary for foreign clerics.

There are also many other religious institutions mostly involved in propaganda that gobble up government money and do not pay taxes on other incomes they have.

Last January when the budget bill was being approved, it became clear that a total of $500 million dollars was going to religious institutions.

Some reports indicate up to a 30 percent decline recently in parts of the budget allocated to the seminaries. However, regardless of the decrease, there are numerous complaints on social media indicating that funds allocated to the clerics are way higher that the budget given to most academic centers and hospitals.

Former Culture Minister Ataollah Mohajerani said in a tweet that the Supreme Council of Seminaries should at least report to the public how it has spent the $44 million budget that was allocated to it as just one part of the money given to the seminaries. Mohajerani warned that in the absence of proper explanation, public opinion might turn against the seminaries.

Despite the gigantic budget, says Iran analyst Akbar Ganji in an article on Radio Farda's website in Persian, "the seminaries have had no achievements whatsoever."

"Apart from the money the people and the government pay the clerics, thousands of clergymen work at government institutions and others hold congregational prayers against a regular salary," Ganji wrote.

He asked in the article, "Why clerics have not had any achievement in spite of the huge investment made in the seminaries, and their well-equipped buildings and libraries?"

Meanwhile, Ganji questioned the value of Ayatollah Javadi Amoli's own scholarly works which include over 40 volumes about the holy Koran, asking "what innovation has he offered in those books?"

Ganji charged that Amoli's interpretation of the Koran includes anti-Semitic and anti-Christian arguments and goes as far as giving priority to the Shiite saints (Imams) over the holy text. He even claims that without the Imams' blessings people cannot go to heaven. With such an argument, says Ganji, there is no way for Sunni Muslims and believers in other faiths to go to heaven.

According to Ganji, in Amoli's writings, the status of Imams is over and above the word of God, which is the Koran for Muslims. Ganji argues that such ideas are not only against Sunni beliefs, they could be even heretical.

Finally, Ganji criticized Amoli for attributing disproportionate spiritual characteristics and religious powers to Ayatollah Rouhollah Khomeini, the Islamic Republic's first leader in a way that entitles him to change basic rules of the religion.

According to Ganji, Amoli also attributes characteristics and merits to the Supreme Leader (Vali Faqih) that puts him in a higher position than Shiite saints.

The final picture that emerges shows that resources spent on the clergy and their elevated power and influence have brought no tangible benefits, except reciprocal support they give to Khamenei, who is being elevated to sainthood by some clerics.