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Sunni Leader Warns Iran Reformists

Molavi AbdolHamid Ismaeelzahi (L), a Sunni theologian and a spiritual leader of the Sunni community in Iran. File photo

Molavi Abdul Hamid Ismaeelzahi, one of Iran’s prominent Sunni leaders, is well known for his straightforward comments. When it comes to Sunni rights, he doesn’t mince words.

“If Sunnis’ demands are not meted out, the reformists might lose their support,” Abdul Hamid cautioned. “We even might support the principalists (conservative hard-liners) in the next election if they campaign on an acceptable platform.”

In an interview with the daily Shahrvand on September 13, Abdul Hamid lambasted the reformists and accused them of ingratitude. “The reformists, as soon as they win an election, forget the people and limit their pre-election visits (to the mainly Sunni-populated areas in Iran).”

As Friday Prayer leader and imam of Sunnis in Zahedan, the capital of the primarily Sunni-populated province of Sistan and Baluchestan in southeast Iran, Abdul Hamid has been fighting for equal rights and a greater role for Sunnis in the government.

During May’s presidential election, he openly supported moderate incumbent Hassan Rouhani and called upon millions of his followers to vote for him.

One of his demands was to give Sunnis a niche in Rouhani’s new cabinet. The demand fell on deaf ears.

However, on August 30, Rouhani said he has always insisted on women, youth, different ethnicities, and religious minorities holding national management positions.

He emphasized that there should be some diversity among high-level managers.

“Aren’t people of other denominations [non-Shi’a] members of the Iranian nation?” he asked.

These words were music to the ears of minorities, but they are also seen as mere lip service among Sunnis.

Meanwhile, Abdul Hamid was not even invited to attend Rouhani’s second-term inauguration.

Apparently, that was his reason for writing another letter to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei despite previous letters being ignored.

Surprisingly, and in an unprecedented gesture, Khamenei decided to answer Abdul Hamid’s last letter, insisting that the pillars of the nation, based on the constitution, are “duty-bound” to refrain from discrimination against Iranian citizens.

However, according to Article 12 of the Iranian Constitution, the official denomination of the country is Twelver Imam Shi’a.

Furthermore, Article 115 stipulates that high positions in Iran’s ruling system, i.e. the supreme leadership and the presidency, are exclusive to the Shi’a, therefore Sunnis, as well as followers of other religions and denominations, are banned from taking such high positions.

Nevertheless, the Sunni imam has been apparently impressed by Khamenei’s comments as a green light for ending discrimination against Iranian minorities.

Referring to the supreme leader’s comments, Abdul Hamid told Shahrvand, “[Rouhani’s] government is left with no more excuses, and it’s time to fulfil its promises to Sunnis.”

Rouhani should stop listening to others, he insisted, adding, “[If you appointed a Sunni for a high-profile position] and someone protests, show them the supreme leader’s edicts.”

By “others,” Abdul Hamid was apparently referring to a few hard-liner ayatollahs and “revolutionary entities” who reportedly, from time to time, impose their wills on the government.

“If Rouhani and his team are serious enough [to mete out Sunnis’ demands], it is the right time to resolve the problems,” the Friday Prayer leader maintained.

Rouhani and his team have not yet responded to Abdul Hamid’s latest comments.

In Iran, Sunnis have been denied certain civic rights, including appointment to high-level government positions, although two years ago, a Sunni was appointed for the first time as ambassador to Vietnam and Cambodia. The Rouhani government also appointed another Sunni, Emad Hosseini, as deputy oil minister.

Moreover, Sunnis have not been allowed to build their own mosque in the capital, Tehran. Meanwhile, Abdul Hamid is barred from visiting mainly Sunni-populated areas outside his domain, the province of Sistan and Baluchestan, while Sunni leaders from elsewhere are barred from visiting the province.