A view from Qeytarieh Park, located in northern Tehran

Public Outcry Over Construction Of Mosques In Tehran Parks

Saturday, 03/30/2024

Controversy has ignited in Iran over a government plan to construct mosques in Tehran's parks, with critics denouncing the project as either a misuse of public funds or driven by hidden motives.

Public outrage erupted as images and reports circulated online revealing that the municipality of Tehran had initiated the construction of a mosque in Qeytarieh Park, located in northern Tehran. The construction involved fencing off a section of the park and cutting down trees, sparking widespread backlash.

Iran International has received scores of comments by Iranians who emphasized that parks are the first and most accessible places for protesters to gather in neighborhoods, prompting the government to replace them with mosques, seen as potential outposts for deploying security forces to crush future demonstrations.

Construction site fencing at Qeytarieh Park (March 2024)

Once seen as propaganda tools, Iranian mosques have undergone a shift in function amid declining attendance. During recent protests, these mosques reportedly served as staging grounds for security forces cracking down on demonstrations. Mosques additionally function as recruitment centers for the Basij, the IRGC's volunteer paramilitary force that played a key role in suppressing the protests.

Citizens have launched an online petition expressing their dismay and calling for intervention from the head of the Administrative Court of Justice, the head of the Judiciary, and the president to halt the project. The petition highlighted Tehran's severe air pollution and emphasized the urgent need for more green spaces and trees in the capital.

They pointed out that there are already several mosques in the area, many of which are underutilized. Additionally, the project was criticized as a misuse of public funds, further fueling public opposition.

After several days of silence from city officials, Majid Ghafouri Rouzbahani, an assistant to the mayor of Tehran, finally confirmed the construction of a "magnificent and splendid mosque" in Qeytarieh Park. He justified the project by citing the lack of religious facilities in the upscale Qeytarieh neighborhood and the demand from religious residents.

Adding fuel to the fire, Mayor Alireza Zakani also came out in defense of the decision and “declared plans to build mosques in all of the capital's parks, not just Qeytarieh.” 

Zakani’s announcement was also echoed by the spokesperson for the Tehran Municipality, who said Friday that "The mosque in Qeytarieh Park will not be the first or last mosque in Tehran's large parks. Acknowledging the low number of mosque goers, he insisted that “The fact that some existing mosques have few worshipers or that the worshipers are of a particular age group (the elderly) is not a good reason to stop developing mosques." 

The green circle shows Qeytarieh Park and the blue pins show the mosques in the area

Last year, a senior Iranian cleric, Mohammad Abolghassem Doulabi, revealed that 50,000 out of 75,000 mosques nationwide had been closed due to a significant decline in attendance. Doulabi, a liaison between President Ebrahim Raisi's administration and the country's seminaries, expressed concern over the implications of low mosque attendance for a state founded on Islamic principles. In December, Mohammad Mehdi Esmaeili, the Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance, raised alarm over the fall in mosque attendance across the country.

The government's push to build more mosques, many of which are likely to remain empty, has further stoked public outrage, dragging politicians into a heated debate.

Reformist commentator Abbas Abdi took a jab online, suggesting the mosque project is a sweetheart deal for regime insiders who will secure construction contracts. "If you can't make young people pray, it's okay. There's an easier way that also benefits your contractors. Build as many mosques as you can."

Conservative journalist Ali Gholhaki criticized the plan to build the needless mosque in Qeytarieh Park that is surrounded by at least five mosques and one Husayniyya (a Shiite congregation hall) as well several smaller prayer sites. He labelled it as a bureaucratic vanity project with no benefit to residents, saying it only has “a report-padding function.” 

Prominent Iranian sociologist Mohammad Fazeli challenged Tehran's mayor: "Prove that your mosque construction plan will promote prayer." 

"Mixing ideology, coercion, and money has birthed a dangerous level of politics and foolish actions,” he stated. 

Mohammad Mohajeri, a conservative politician and a critic of the current ultraconservative political establishment, slammed the decision as “a form of obstinacy” on the part of the government. 

“Qeytarieh and neighboring Chizar are old, religious communities in Tehran with ample mosques," he said. “The current population doesn't require a new one. And if they did, they have the means to expand existing facilities or build a new mosque themselves, without government or municipal intervention."

Cleric Saeed Lavasani, himself a former prayer leader, said, “Building mosques is a community act of faith, not a municipal duty. The city should focus on its real job: building parks, constructing highways, developing urban systems, optimizing routes -- areas where they seem to be falling short.” 

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