Monday’s arrest of a top advisor to the popular Sunni leader Mowlavi Abdolhamid has led to more tensions in Zahedan, capital of Iran's southeastern Sistan-Baluchestan.
Mowlavi Abdolmajid Morad-Zehi was arrested on the way home in Zahedan by security forces Monday and taken away to an unknown location. The arrest followed reports of increased surveillance of the Sunni Makki Mosque recently where the dissident Abdelhamid’s office is located.
The official news agency IRNA reported that Morad-Zehi was arrested on charges of “disturbing the public’s peace of mind, numerous contacts with foreign individuals and media, and misleading public opinion. State media have also said that Morad-Zehi refused to present himself to security and intelligence bodies that had summoned him several times.
Sunni leader Mowlavi Abdolhamid (left) and his aide Mowlavi Abdolmajid Morad-Zehi
Morad-Zehi’s arrest has given rise to fears of Abdolhamid’s impending arrest for his sermons regularly criticizing Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the government for crackdown on protests.
Serious unrest began in Iran more than four months ago over the death in custody of the 22-year-old Mahsa Amini for failing to wear her hijab “properly”.
Abdolhamid has also criticized the regime for not addressing the problems of poverty, corruption, as well as discrimination against religious minorities, and ethnic groups. He has even opposed execution which is a very sensitive topic for the regime and reiterated that Iranian people have said ‘no’ to execution as a punishment. He also defended the rights of the followers of the Baha’i faith who are considered heretics by some Shiites and Sunnis.
On Tuesday the ultra-hardline Kayhan newspaper which is funded by Khamenei’s office fiercely attacked Abdolhamid for his defense of the Baha’is rights and for demanding peace between Israel and Palestinians.
Mowlavi Abdolmajid Morad-Zehi
“What authority does the occupying Zionist regime represent to a Muslim to consider it as legitimate and invite it to peace?” Kayhan’s firebrand chief editor Hossein Shariatmadari wrote referring to Abdolhamid’s latest Friday sermon in which he said Iranians believe that the government of Israel and people of Palestine should make peace so that the Palestinians can have their own government alongside and separate from the government of Israel.
Abdolhamid has delivered fiery sermons every week since September 30 when over eighty of his congregation were shot death after leaving the mosque. Since then, every Friday thousands of his followers have taken to the streets in Zahedan and other cities to protest. Last Friday security forces fired bullets and tear gas at them.
According to local rights groups, hundreds of protesters have been arrested often violently during this time and the atmosphere in the city has continuously been tense with stop and search checkpoints erected in various districts. Security forces have also been flying drones over the city on the days of the protests.
In late December the government appointed Mohammad Karami, the former commander of IRGC Ground Forces in southeastern Iran, as the new governor of Sistan-Baluchistan following the escalation of protests in the Sunni majority areas, particularly Zahedan. Local sources say the atmosphere has become more tense following Karami’s appointment, locals chanting against him in their protests.
A Baluch website said Monday security forces arrested Morad-Zehi to intimidate the leading figures of the Sunni community and gauge the reaction of locals to crackdowns before taking direct action against Abdolhamid himself.
“Silence over the arrest of individuals such as Mowlavi Abdolmajid will normally embolden the government to engage in more crackdown, extensive arrests, and imposing a more severe atmosphere of fear. The only way to counter this is people’s swift and timely reaction,” the website wrote.