A leading Sunni cleric's popularity has been on the rise in Iran even among the Shiite majority since the start of nationwide protests in mid-September.

The rise in Molavi Abdolhamid's popularity is largely because of his brave comments that challenge the absolute authority of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

In his Friday prayers sermons November 4, Molavi Abdolhamid, officially known as Molavi Shaikh Abdolhamdid Esmailzehi, once again called for a referendum in Iran to decide the form of government and political structure. He has done that before. But this time, he wants "an internationally monitored referendum," a characterization that revealed his distrust of the government and rejection of the Shiite clerical rule based on the absolute power of an unelected Supreme Leader.

Although Abdolhamid has been always vocal in upholding the rights of Sunni Iranians, his tone and rhetoric grew increasingly defiant after two rounds of IRGC attacks on Friday prayer crowds in his hometown of Zahedan since September 30. The attacks left more than 100 dead and many more wounded.

Addressing the government, he said on Friday, "A majority of Iranians are unhappy. If you don't agree, hold a referendum with the presence of international observers and accept the result.” He added: “By killing, beating, and arresting, you cannot push back a nation that has been protesting in the streets for 50 days now.”

Last week, a video of him after the second attack went viral on social media. In an extremely emotional and impressive sermon, he said with his chesty voice on 28 October, "The Sunnis have been suffering from discrimination since the start of the Islamic revolution in 1979." He warned the government that "Unilateral decisions are a weakness in the country’s administration."

Abdolhamid (L) with President Raisi during the 2021 presidential election

Fars news agency affiliated with the Revolutionary Guard accused the Sunni leader of encouraging people to revolt on November 5.

Molavi Abdolhamid who had previously supported Reformist President Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005) and moderate conservative Hassan Rouhani (2013-2021), encouraged Iran's Sunni population to support ultraconservative Ebrahim Raisi in the 2021 presidential election. Later he complained that Raisi had refused to fulfil his promises to the country's Sunni community while millions had voted for him. Following the attacks on preachers in Zahedan, some criticized Abdolhamid for having supported Raisi.

However, Abdolhamid was brave enough to hold Khamenei accountable for the attack. Subsequently, some Iranian media began to speculate about the possibility of Molavi Abdolhaid playing a major part in bringing about political change. Abdolhamid, 75, is generally known as one of the most influential political and religious leaders in Iran as nearly 15 million Sunnis listen to him. Their participation in the 2021 election is an indication of his tremendous influence.

In the early history of the Islamic Republic, Molavi Abdolhamid and other Sunni clerics opposed one of the articles of the Constitutional that allowed only Shiites to become president. At the start of the reform movement in 1997, Abdolhamid played a key part as a charismatic leader who rallied the Sunnis behind reformist politician Mohammad Khatami. The history of the Islamic Republic reveals that any candidate who had Abdolhamid's support won the election in Sistan and Baluchistan and Kurdistan Provinces.

Nonetheless, an Interior ministry official characterized Abdolhamid's October 28 sermons as provocative and charged that his words encouraged thousands of Baluch to take to the streets against the government. Thanks to his influence several senior security officers were replaced from their posts after the second attack on Zahedan.

Abdolhamid is respected by Iran's women's movement although women do not agree with his ideas in support of polygamy. Regardless, according to Rouydad24 website in Tehran, many in Baluchistan reportedly refer to Abdolhamid as Amir Al-Momenin [the leader of the pious], a rank that is indicative of his possibly greater role in the future of the region.

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