ROME . In an anonymous building in the Holy City of Qom, a hundred kilometres or so from the Iranian Capital, Ayatollah al ozma Hoseinali Montazeri Najafabadi lives under house arrest. One of the few Grand Ayatollahs, Hoseinali Montazeri is the highest religious authority of the Shiíites in the world. His name, his letters and his proclamations are enough to make the ayatollahs and the hojjatoleslam of Tehran shake with fear. To be caught with a letter or a book by this Grand Ayatollah can land you in prison. Indeed hundreds of his supporters are already languishing behind bars in jails across Iran.

Married to the sister of Grand Ayatollah ozma Ruhollah Khomeini, Montazeri worked closely with the founder of the Islamic Republic for many years. Khomeini granted him the title of "Ayatollah" straight after the Revolution. But his criticism of Khomeiniís authoritarian rule caused the first cracks to appear in the relationship, and eventually led to his house arrest in Qom, where he has lived since then. His house has been desecrated several times by vandals, who have even ill-treated this elderly Ayatollah.

In 1989 Ayatollah Khomeini took away Montazeriís title as his successor.

According to Montazeri, the Constitution of the Islamic Republic had entrusted the task of electing spiritual guides to the people of Iran, rather than to a small group of religious men. But the current Vali Faqih (Guide of the Revolution) Ayatollah Ali Khamenehíi views his opinion and his criticisms as a threat, and for this reason nobody has been able to enter Montazeriís house without prior authorisation since 1997. Not even his children and relatives are exempt from this inhumane ruling. His theological school has been closed down, his library and archives ransacked, and all his belongings confiscated. And all because Grand Ayatollah Montazeri, in his position of highest Shiite religious authority, described Ayatollah Khamenehíi as "having none of the necessary wisdom and knowledge to play such an important spiritual role".

Born in 1922 in Najaf, Grand Ayatollah Montazeri is the author of dozens of books and essays on Islam, and above all on Islamic government. In the letter that accompanies this interview by fax, which used his son and secretary Ahmad Montazeri as an intermediary, the Grand Ayatollah "apologises for not having been able to welcome the interviewer into his home as the Iranian tradition of hospitality prescribes". He expresses his strong regret: "Not for the conditions in which I have been forced to live, but for my children and brothers who are forced to live in a society where everything must be decided from above, and where any form of dissent, even the most naive kind, is punished with jail".

The fax with the questions was sent to the son of the Grand Ayatollah, who in turn did all he could to get it to his father. The answers, signed and authenticated by the Grand Ayatollah himself, took more or less the same route back to the interviewer.

Q: Eminence, recently, in a letter to the President of the Parliament, Ayatollah Ali Khamenehíi, the spiritual guide of the revolution and guardian of the faith, asked for the withdrawal of the proposed bill to revise the press law, put forward by a group of reformist Members of Parliament. In your opinion, does such a letter come within the powers of the Velayat-e-faqih?

A: From the perspective of religious law, the discussion of the guardianship of the Chief Jurist Consult (Velayet-e-faqih) and the extent of the powers of the Jurist Consult will not fit into a letter. That is a scholarly argument. You can refer to the five volumes of "The religious legislative basis for Islamic government". Moreover, the decrees have their own specific cases and conditions, and it is not as if a Jurist Consult can issue decrees on anything he wants to.

With regard to the press decree, first of all his letter was not a decree, but a warning. Secondly, there was no need for a decree, as the Members of Parliament are committed and pious individuals and are familiar with Islamic guidelines and rules. And finally, there is a Guardian Council over Parliament to express its view on this or any other bill approved by the representatives of the people.

Q: What are the theological criteria that establish the range of powers and responsibilities of the Velayat-e-faqih? And based on the official interpretation, do the executive, legislative and judicial powers have any autonomy in the Islamic Republic of Iran?

A: The terminology of the absolute guardianship of the Chief Jurist Consult already mentioned did not originally exist in Article 57 of the first Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran. It was added to it during the revisions, even though there was a great deal of difference in opinion about it among the members and many of the people and the elders did not vote for it. What was presented to the people for voting by the newspapers did not include the word "absolute" Later on, one of the members of the revising assembly claimed in an interview that the word absolute had been approved by the revising assembly, but had been erroneously omitted from the text presented to the people, and thus the people had not voted for it. In fact they added it as such to the Constitution.

Unfortunately, my archives that contained all the newspapers have been pillaged, and I no longer have access to them. These gentlemenís interpretations of the absolute guardianship of the Chief Jurist Consult are in direct conflict with many articles of the Constitution. According to the Constitution, including Articles 6 and 56, the Islamic Republic of Iran should be governed based on peopleís votes and the word republic holds this exact meaning, of course while adhering to Islamic guidelines and rules. The people elect the Members of Parliament to legislate, and the President to implement and carry out the laws. But the interpretation these gentlemen have of the absolute guardianship of the Chief Jurist Consult is the despotism of the Jurist Consult and that all responsible institutions are unnecessary and superfluous. The fact that the Parliament and the executive branch are responsible to the people but are neither independent or have the centres of power in their hand is in no way logical or rational.
Q: The current interpretations of many centres of power donít leave much space for democratically elected organisms. Isn't this a contradiction with the same ideals that brought the absolutist monarchy to an end 21 years ago?

A: In an era like ours, when people read, are politically aware, and mentally developed, and have full and complete contact with the outside world, and can see the freedom in other countries, to ignore the legitimate liberties of the people, shut their mouths, silence the national press, and insist on their total and unconditional surrender, especially that of the scientists and the experts in social, political and economic sciences, all at the instigation of one fallible human being who is capable of making mistakes - especially in the name of Islam and religion - will lead to a rebellion by the people and their disenchantment with the fundamentals of Islam and religion. Todayís world does not accept the absolute rule of the individual; our government is in no way comparable to the simple government at the beginning of Islam that was headed by the infallible one.

Furthermore, on political and social issues, the prophet did not make decisions by himself. The merciful God in the holy Koran tells his holiness: "Consult with them in affairs" and his holiness the Prophet was all the time asking the people to guide him. The word used in Arabic means betterment, elevation and nobility and thus his holiness meant see my work and guide me The basis and foundation of the government is the people, and our people care about Islam, but spurn despotism. Individual actions will lead to instability of the regime and the weakening of the institutions and the pillars of the government. Islam and the Islamic government of Iran have been irreparably harmed and damaged in terms of economy and politics by individual acts and absolute thoughts. The appearance of the school of thought of the separation of religion from state in the new generation is related to this as well.
Q: You are the highest Shiite religious authority in Iran, and the world. Do you not think that forcing Your Eminence into house arrest and killing your followers is a blatant contradiction to the respect that in the Islamic religion is reserved for the ulemas or sages?

A: In response to your question pertaining to my confinement and its consequences, Iíd like to point out that unfortunately my confinement and continued and repeated aggression against my students and those connected to me, as well as the fabrication of cases against and the arrest and imprisonment of many of those speaking and writing - who are in truth pious and are committed and adherent to Islamic guidelines that these gentlemen are carrying out, with the excuse of defending Islam and the Islamic regime, forcing some institutions into repetitious and cheap praise and flattery, and tolerating no form of guidance and the propagation of good and prohibiting of the vice on Islam - are public matters. It isnít as if the officials are the only ones that understand, and the people count for nothing. The commander of all faithful Imam Ali, even though he has infallibility in sermon 216 in Nahjolbalagheh says: "My dealing with you wonít be from the perspective of tolerance and compromise, donít think that it is difficult for me to hear what is right and I don't expect you to consider me as grand because it would be doubly hard for one who canít stand to hear what is right and just to carry them out. Therefore don't stop stating what is righteous and guiding to justice as I donít consider myself to be beyond and immune to error unless God guides me to be that way.

What is important in Islamic judgment is the fulfilling of the peopleís rights and the carrying out of Godís laws and not putting together political and factional cases and filing complaints by specific professional plaintiffs. You donít find any of the political trials that have become common today in the history of the prophet and the commander of the faithful. The Nahravan Khavarej openly opposed Imam Ali and Abdollah Ben-Kova even in the presence of his holiness and during the prayers insulted him, but as long as they didnŪt reach for their swords and spill the blood of the innocent, his holiness tolerated them and never stopped their pay from the Moslemís public treasury.
Q: In the last few weeks the press has been the target of heavy attacks, which have practically brought about the suffocation of every voice of dissent. DonŪt you think that the closure of newspapers and the arrests of journalists are the prelude to a more general attack on every type of reform?

A: These attacks do demonstrate a more widespread assault on reformism and freedom seeking. Of course the evidence does point to such an objective. The ban of Article 24 of the Constitution is the freedom of press except where it harms Islamic principals or public rights. In effect, however, the publications that support the behaviour of the officials are free, but the more critical press and publications that contain the demands of the people or include news that displeases the officials have been and are being closed down with false excuses, including that of the possibility of the "infiltration of the enemy". Instead of accusing innocent people and stopping the national press, the government should be stopping the possible enemies. As I have said before the water distribution network, on which the life of the nation is dependent, should never be stopped with the excuse that the enemy might have poisoned it. I can say the same thing about the press. These gentlemen would like to rule over a country that is as silent as a graveyard, and they donít want there to be any form of statement or criticism. The slogan of the people of Iran at the beginning of the Revolution had three principals: Independence, Freedom, and Islamic Republic. For the same principals our people are continuing their fight.
Q: Itís enough to utter your name to turn the dreams of the powerful men of Tehran into a nightmare. Donít you fear for your life?

A: I would like to point out that Iím neither after a position, nor am I an enemy of the Revolution or ignorant of Islamic rules and stands, but based on my Islamic and conscious duties I canít remain indifferent. I give friendly warnings to the officials and those in charge that the way the people are dealt with will distance the people from Islam and from you. Donít be fooled by the slogans of specific groups that they gather around you by soft and subtle deceit, they do not represent all the people. Itís necessary for you to reconsider your ways - before itís too late. The behaviour of the judiciary toward the press and those of the pen is not just, and the acts of the Guardian Council are based on the guardianship of the Parliament and the people. In a Parliament that contains 290 of the best and the brightest of the nation and has some of the experts and elders are its members, are all of them without religion and indifferent to Islamic rules and guidelines? Is only a handful of people - including the general secretary of the Guardian Council - the protectors of Islam?

We saw what the Guardian Council did, using the excuse of an incorrect claim, the right to righteous supervision, to the last election and in particular to TehranŪs election and how they moved individuals up and down on the lists! In your slogans you talk of freedom while just because of a caring critical speech it is now almost three years that I have been under house arrest and my offices in Qom and Mashhad are unjustly under the control of agents. My Hossienieh (hall of sermon) which contains thousands of Korans and scientific and Islamic books and instruments I own or I have borrowed is under their control. And even though Iím one of the founders of the Islamic revolution, no publication in the country dares to mention my name, never mind publish my opinions. As a consequence I can only do interviews with publications from outside the country. It is hoped that the mighty God will aid all of us in carrying out our religious and conscious duties. END MONTAZERI INTERVIEW 13900