Iran Pulse

Controversy erupts as soccer, religion clash in Iran

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Article Summary
A prominent cleric is calling for the cancellation of a World Cup qualifier between Iran and South Korea because the match falls on a Shiite day of mourning.

Heated debate has erupted in Iran over the confluence of Tasua, one of the most significant holy days in the Shiite calendar, and the Oct. 11 Iran-South Korea football qualifier for the 2018 World Cup. 

Tasua and Ashura, the ninth and 10th days of the month of Moharram, are days of national mourning to commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad.

Jamejam Online reported Oct. 2 that Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi has harshly criticized Youth Affairs and Sports Minister Mahmoud Goudarzi for not rescheduling or canceling the match, which is scheduled for Tehran’s Azadi Stadium. Yazdi — the president of the Society of Seminary Teachers in the holy city of Qom and until last May head of the Assembly of Experts — has openly criticized President Hassan Rouhani and his ministers on numerous occasions for their cultural policies.

On Oct. 4, Jamejam Online published an open letter penned by Ali Motahari — the outspoken deputy speaker of parliament — and addressed to Yazdi. In the letter, Motahari called Yazdi’s stance on the match “indigestible.”

Insinuating that Yazdi was being oversensitive about the event, Motahari asked, “Imagine that Iran scored against South Korea and some people cheered. Does that mean that the people are cheering the martyrdom of Imam Hussein?” Motahari added, “If someone after years meets his mother, father or child on the eve of Ashura, should he then not be happy and smiling to avoid violating the sanctity of the imam?”

Motahari, the son of the highly respected late Ayatollah Morteza Motahari, continued in a frank tone, “The duty of the clergy and the righteous is to fight against the weak points of the society and the superstitious customs that have chained people’s hands and feet — and not to ride with that current.”

Motahari, known for his outspokenness and for having no qualms about controversy, ended his letter by contending that Yazdi’s approach might ultimately serve to push people away from religion. “This is remindful of the activities of the Catholic Church in the medieval times that resulted in the Europeans’ escape from religion.”

Asr-e Iran on Oct. 3 cited a South Korean news outlet as reporting, “Iran’s soccer federation has requested that Korean fans respect certain issues on the day of the match.” The alleged request, reported to have been submitted via the Iranian Embassy in Seoul, involved asking Korean fans not to bring items that they typically might use in celebrating, such as balloons. Moreover, South Korean soccer players, who usually wear red shirts at national games, were supposedly asked to wear dark shirts because of Tasua.

Although circulated on numerous Iranian websites, this news of a request appears to be dubious and has not been officially confirmed by Iranian authorities. In addition, the Reformist Shargh Daily reported on Oct. 4 that the qualifier, which was scheduled almost four years ago, will after much debate and meetings among sports representatives and government and security officials take place as planned on Oct. 11. 

Found in: soccer, shiism, mohammad yazdi, islam, imam hussein, hassan rouhani, ali motahari

Misha Zand covers Iranian media for Al-Monitor. She is also the head of Iran Market Consulting, a Copenhagen-based private company. On Twitter: @MishaZand

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