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Top Sunni cleric laments Iran's discrimination against minorities

In his scathing criticism, Mawlawi Abdul-Hamid also recognized the ongoing protests in Khuzestan province, which in his view, should not be reduced to the water crisis.
Iranian boys ride their bicycles in Adimi village in Hamoon wetland near the Zabol town in southeastern province of Sistan-Baluchistan, bordering Afghanistan, Feb. 2, 2015.

The highest-ranking and most popular Sunni cleric in Iran, Mawlawi Abdul-Hamid, expressed concern for the overall situation of minorities in Iran under the Islamic Republic, saying the same ethnicities in neighboring countries and the Persian Gulf region "are better off."

"When comparing their lives to people in Kuwait and other Persian Gulf nations, our fellow Arab countrymen clearly find themselves in livelihood hardships," the cleric told Sunni Online, a news outlet that monitors the situation of Iran's Sunni community. "They have no welfare and no authority to decide their future as they also suffer from pressure and discrimination," the cleric said in reference to the ethnic Arabs in Khuzestan.

For over two weeks, the largely Arab-populated region in Iran's southwest has been rocked with protests originating from a water crisis, which has only exacerbated its already alarming unemployment and poverty.

Abdul-Hamid, however, noted that the anger in Khuzestan is not limited to water shortages, and rather encompasses "destitution and underdevelopment," which he blamed on government "mismanagement," the outcome of which "is obviously anger and discontent."

Amnesty International has counted at least eight deaths at the hands of Iran's security forces during the Khuzestan protests. Still, activists are worried that the figure could stand higher amid government-imposed severe internet restrictions to keep the voices unheard. While Khuzestan rallies have garnered solidarity from across the country, including the capital Tehran, the slogans have been reflective of a shared level of desperation.

Despite his moderate approach and his attempts to engage with the Islamic Republic, Abdul-Hamid has been repeatedly facing restriction from Iran's leadership, including travel bans and surveillance of his personal life.

A Baluchi by ethnicity, Abdul-Hamid is the Friday prayer leader of the southeastern city of Zahedan in Sistan-Baluchistan province. Instrumental to his criticism against the government in control of the Shiite majority has been his calls for inclusion of minorities in Iran's governance. "There are Baluchis of Iranian origin serving as ministers or commanders in Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman countries, while here in our homeland, we have to struggle to have a local governor." He blamed the situation on authorities in Tehran, whose "mistrust" in other ethnicities does not allow for meritocracy.

The cleric also raised the same concern about Iran's Kurdish community, whose fellows "are doing way better in neighboring Iraq and Turkey … while in Iran, they do suffer from extreme discrimination."

Under the Islamic Republic, the posts of the supreme leader and president are required by law to be held by followers of the official religion — Shiism. The Iranian Constitution, however, has not set any such limitation on ministerial posts. Consecutive presidents in the Islamic Republic have repeatedly avoided inclusion of the Sunni minority, effectively negating their own promises during campaign rallies. And the failure to deliver on those promises has triggered widespread disillusionment, expressed by Abdul-Hamid and other Sunni clerics. Despite Abdul-Hamid's key endorsement for President Hassan Rouhani, which secured the latter a massive sweeping of the ballots in Sistan-Baluchistan in 2017, the president famously refused to invite the Sunni cleric to his second inauguration ceremony.

Ahead of the June presidential election in Iran, the pro-engagement cleric did endorse hard-line Ebrahim Raisi, avoiding widespread boycott campaigns. The move cost him a barrage of attacks, but Abdul-Hamid insisted that he needs to deal with the new president for the sake of the ethnic Baluchis and the wider Sunni community.

In his interview with Sunni Online, Abdul-Hamid warned that Raisi is the "last remaining hope" for the Sunni minority and advised the incoming president to adopt his policies based on "realities."

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