Hundreds of local Sunnis Friday joined the congregation of a Friday prayer leader who was sacked last week by the dominant Shiite clerical establishment in Iran.
Ayatollah Kazem Nourmofidi, representative of Iran in the northern Golestan province last week dismissed Gergij, the Friday prayer leader (imam) of Sunnis in Azadshahr. Nourmofidi also appointed a new imam for Azadshahr and nearby Galikosh which has a considerably large Sunni population and a Sunni seminary.
Both Shiite and Sunni Friday imams are appointed by the Supreme Leader or his representatives, but the imam's supporters say Shiite officials have no right to decide on their behalf, and their imams must be appointed by a council of Sunni clerics. Sunnis also oppose the interference of the Leader's representativesin running their seminaries.
Gergij's dismissal came after he made some remarks about Shiite Imams in his Friday sermon two weeks ago that some Shiites found offensive to their sanctities. Gergij said his remarks had been misinterpreted and he had meant no disrespect.
The sacking of Gergij has caused some unrest in Golestan province which has a large Turkmen and Balochi Sunni population. The Sunni imam's supporters have marched on the streets of Azadshahr and Galikosh several times since his dismissal by Khamenei's representative.
Gergij was summoned to the governor's office in Galikosh Thursday morning where hundreds gathered and chanted Allahu Akbar in his support. He was not allowed to return home before evening.
In a video distributed on social media Thursday, Gergij is seen reading from a prepared text and calling his supporters not to stage any protest rallies "to allow disputes to be resolved in a calm atmosphere". Some supporters have alleged that he was pressured to make the statement by security forces.
The Sunnis of Azadshahr were not allowed to hold their Friday prayers at the usual prayer groundsbut videos posted on social media Friday showed hundreds of local Sunnis gathered at a mosque in Galikosh where Gergij was led to the minbar (pulpit) to lead the prayers.
In a letter to Khamenei December 24, Abdolhamid Esmail-Zehi, the influential Sunni Friday imam of Zahedan in Sistan-Baluchistan province, said Gergij's dismissal troubled and disillusioned the Sunni population and could have "irreparable consequences for the unity of Shiite and Sunni Muslims in Iran.
Abdolhamid who is considered the most influential Sunni cleric in Iran has often criticized the Islamic Republic for treating the minority Muslim community as second-class citizens.
In the June presidential election, Abdolhamid who had in the previous elections supported reformist and moderate candidates threw his weight behind hardliner Ebrahim. But he put the onus on Raisi and said his government would be Iran’s “last hope".
The Sunni leader's pro-Taliban statementsafter the Taliban takeover in Kabul led to criticisms from rights groups.
Iran's Sunnis, who constitute between 5 and 10 percent of the population, often complain of discrimination, which bars them from key government and military positions.
Most Sunnis belong to Turkmen, Arab, Baluchi, and Kurdish ethnic groups who live in north-east, south-west, south-east, and north-west provinces respectively and may also be subject to ethnic discrimination.