Ayatollah Hossein Kazemeini Boroujerdi: Speaking Out Against Theocracy in Iran

Snapshot of activism

Ayatollah Hossein Kazemeini Boroujerdi is an Iranian cleric who opposes the country's theocratic ruling system and advocates the separation of religion and state. Boroujerdi, as an adherent of the traditional Shi'a belief in religious abstention from worldly politics, vocally opposes Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's concept of velayat-e faqih (“Islamic jurisprudence”), the founding ideology of the Islamic Republic. Boroujerdi has criticized Iran's theocracy for “weakening” the religiosity of Iranian society and turning large segments of the Iranian public against both the Shi'a clergy and religious faith on the whole.[1]  As a result of his outspoken criticism of Iran's ruling system, which he has called a "totalitarian and corrupt dictatorship where the crown has been replaced by the turban," Boroujerdi and hundreds of his followers have been arrested and persecuted by Iranian security forces.[2] The cleric himself is currently serving an 11-year prison sentence in Tehran's Evin Prison on charges of "spreading propaganda against the system" and "warring against God."[3]


As an ayatollah ("Sign of God"), Boroujerdi occupies a senior position within the Shi'a Muslim clerical hierarchy. The dissident cleric comes from a long line of Iranian religious leaders; he is the grandson of Ayatollah Seyyed Taher Kazemeini Boroujerdi and the son of Ayatollah Seyyed Mohammad Ali Kazemeini Boroujerdi, both of whom were prominent opponents of theocratic rule in Iran. Taher Kazemeini Boroujerdi died shortly after Ruhollah Khomeini came to power as Iran's first Supreme Leader, while Mohammad Ali, Boroujerdi's father, died under mysterious circumstances in 2002. Mohammad Ali had been a prominent religious leader under the Shah, writing over thirty books. His refusal to support Khomeini, however, led to his persecution and imprisonment. After the elder Boroujerdi's death, his followers secretly buried his body in Tehran's Masjid Nour mosque, where he had led services. The Iranian government, however, expropriated the mosque and desecrated his grave.[4]

Boroujerdi was born on August 1, 1958 in the western Iranian city of Borujerd.[5] Boroujerdi began his theological studies in his hometown, moving on to the city of Qom, which is the center of Iran's Shi'a clerical establishment, to complete his religious education under Ayatollah Seyyed Mar'ashi Najafi, a marja-e taqlid ("source of emulation," the highest position a Shi'a cleric can attain) and opponent of politicized religion. Boroujerdi officially entered the ranks of the clergy in Qom, although he later voluntarily defrocked himself in prison to protest the Iranian government’s abuses.[6] In the early 1990s, Boroujerdi took part in cultural activities and religious proselytizing in Tehran; according to his supporters, he avoided political activism at that time, although his independent views won him popular support. Nevertheless, pro-Boroujerdi sources claim that pro-government clerics, jealous of his notoriety, opened a case against him in Iran's Special Clerical Court, leading to his arrest and torture, with the alleged involvement of the Intelligence Ministry, in January 1995.[7]

Ayatollah Boroujerdi would go on to be called before the Special Clerical Court (SCC) on a number of occasions between 1994 and 2001.[8] According to Amnesty International, the SCC is "a highly secretive body which reports directly to the Supreme Leader and is independent of the judiciary." Amnesty also adds that "only clerics appointed by the court may serve as defense lawyers and, like in other courts in Iran, judges can impose the death penalty."[9] Iran's ruling system sets members of the clergy apart from the rest of the population; with the religious authority of Supreme Leaders Ruhollah Khomeini and Ali Khamenei serving as the founding principle of the Islamic Republic, both have been extremely sensitive to challenges to their legitimacy from other high-ranking clerics. Some of Iran's highest-ranking ayatollahs and key revolutionary figures, such as Hossein Ali Montazeri and Yousef Saanei, have been demoted to lower clerical ranks and even placed under house arrest for voicing opposition to the two rulers.[10] In Boroujerdi's case, the requirement that attorneys before the SCC be clerics themselves has prevented his lawyer, Giti Porfazel, from working with him at all. Despite officially naming her his legal representative, Boroujerdi is required to conduct all of his dealings with the court himself. Porfazel, being refused visitation rights with her client, has been unable to work with him directly since his imprisonment.[11]


As a Shi'a traditionalist, Boroujerdi maintains that the only individual capable of administering just religious rule is the Imam Mahdi (otherwise known as the "Twelfth Imam"), who the Shi'a believe is the Prophet Mohammad's direct descendant and rightful successor as leader of the faithful. Twelver Shi'ism, which is the religion of both the Iranian state and 90% of the country's population, holds that the Mahdi disappeared into occultation in the 9th century, but will return to bring about universal justice and prepare the world for Judgment Day. With the Mahdi yet to return, many Shi'a Muslims have historically believed that, although all other governments are inherently illegitimate, they must refrain from political activity and wait for the Twelfth Imam's divinely-guided rule. In relation to the clerical establishment now ruling Iran, Ayatollah Boroujerdi shares this view, stating, "there is only one individual who has not erred and has no flaws. He is the lord of the age, the Imam Mahdi. Only he has the legitimate competence to rule and pass judgment."[12] Boroujerdi sees his own intervention in the political realm as one of humanitarian obligation, saying, "I do not wish to get involved in politics. But at a time when Iran is engulfed in so much chaos, the regime has to realize that now is not the time to create yet another crisis."[13]

From the time he first openly opposed clerical rule in Iran in 1994, Boroujerdi has advocated the separation of Shi'a Islam from politics, on the grounds that corruption and repression under the Islamic Republic have undermined the level of belief of the Iranian public. From the cleric's perspective, enforcing religious morals and beliefs by force has paradoxically resulted in a population that is increasingly secularized, anti-clerical, and anti-religious. As he explained in a letter from prison in May 2013: "I, who have been a prisoner of these so-called religious authorities for the last seven years, appeal to all those who uphold their civility and integrity to assist me in informing the world at large, via the international media and policymakers, that these gatherings and conferences are nothing but a mockery and a sham. Please report that this humble preacher, who is under torture, is reaching out to all those religious leaders and spiritual standard-bearers in this part of the world; wolves who are disguised in human form rule the roost, destroying all the faith and love that the everyday person has for God. They have done their utmost in desecrating any trust in the Almighty and have shut down any will for independent inquiry and soul searching. Soon, any public unity will be wiped out and the product of this Islamic Revolution will be proven to have been nothing more than privation, desperation and downright chaos which will have been wrought on the children of Iran."[14]

In his letters, Ayatollah Boroujerdi has also bucked the Shi'a religious establishment by appealing directly to leaders of other faiths, as well as defending the rights of Iran's marginalized non-Shi'a groups. In an letter to then-Pope Benedict XVI, for example, Boroujerdi highlighted the damage being inflicted on religiosity in Iranian society, writing: “As a reaction to the false and brutal religion imposed by the regime, the people are increasingly losing their faith and turning to non-belief and materialism. Those like me, who truly devote themselves to God, are being shunned and censored by the media. By effectively silencing the voices of the truly faithful, the counterfeit and corrupt rulers here seek to demolish truly divine beliefs and to dishonor the Holy Spirit." Demonstrating an open viewpoint towards other religions, Boroujerdi wrote to Pope Benedict that his goal was to “promote, in this country’s and the world’s public conscience, a belief in (and commitment to) our mutual God.” [15] In a letter to the Human Rights Council, on the other hand, Boroujerdi harshly criticized discrimination and repression against Iran’s religious minorities, presenting a blunt summary of their status: "Iran’s government… considers no right for freedom of belief and expression of idea. In such an atmosphere, religious minorities that include Sunnis, Christians, Zoroastrians, Baha’is, Jews, Shiites, and even Sufis that believe and interpret Islam somehow differently are under pressure and harassment as well. They are arrested [for] any tiny protest and criticism, and condemned on unrealistic accusations at illegal courts [and] without any right to a lawyer. They are punished heavily [and] are even executed."[16] On the whole, Boroujerdi’s views on theocratic rule, state-run religiosity, and religious freedom are extremely cosmopolitan for a clergyman. As he explained in 2006: "This is not about me. It is about freedom of worship. We hope that the international community supports Iranians' right to follow their traditional faith. We pray for the day when the United Nations Security Council passes a resolution in support of freedom of religion in Iran."[17]


Despite being in prison since 2006, Ayatollah Kazemeini Boroujerdi has refused to let his incarceration prevent him from sharply criticizing Iran's ruling system, its foreign policy, and its management of domestic affairs. Like other dissidents and opposition activists, including Nasrin Sotoudeh and Majid Tavakoli, Boroujerdi has written open letters from prison with the goal of attracting international attention to his plight and his aims. These open letters have been addressed to world leaders and Iranian allies, including U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Pope Benedict XVI, and Ali Khamenei himself. The cleric's family, meanwhile, wrote its own open letter to Ban-Ki Moon in August 2012.[18] In these letters, Ayatollah Boroujerdi has consistently decried the Iranian regime's human rights violations, treatment of its populace, and abuse of religion for political power.

In his letters to Ban-Ki Moon and the U.N. Human Rights Council, Ayatollah Boroujerdi implored the international community to held reign in the abuses of the Iranian government. On the occasion of the United Nations' 67th General Assembly in 2012, Boroujerdi wrote to Secretary-General Moon, “I call upon all of you democratic leaders of the world, who are in attendance at this majestic assembly, to publicly charge the president of Iran to account for the following matters; and I appeal to you to challenge him under legal and international standards, in order for the world to learn of and impede the dangers posed by this deceitful regime whose pretenses of piety and faith are nothing more than a ruse to plunder the national wealth."[19] In writing to Vladimir Putin, a key partner of the Islamic Republic, Boroujerdi questioned his decision to work with the Iranian leadership, stating that he was partly responsible for the problems facing the Iranian people. In the letter, he wrote, "The Iranian leaders who lean on your support continue to plunder the Iranian people’s property and have pushed our nation to the edge of total chaos and destruction. Anyone with any real knowledge of the statistics and poverty index of the Iranian people would cease all support for this inhumane regime. Are you quite certain that these are the characters you wish to have in control of one of your most important neighboring countries?"

Where is he now?

Boroujerdi has spent the last eight years in prison, being held in both Tehran and the central Iranian city of Yazd. On October 8, 2006, he was arrested after clashes between police forces and his supporters, hundreds of whom had taken part in a cordon around his home to prevent his detention.[20] Both Boroujerdi and his followers had been under pressure for several months; on July 30, security forces had attacked the cleric's home and arrested his relatives, who were held and tortured for 21 days in Evin Prison. From that point on, his supporters began forming human shields inside his residence in order to block his arrest, a tactic that succeeded when those forces returned on August 3. While they were able to temporarily prevent Boroujerdi's removal, hundreds of the ayatollah's followers, both men and women, were followed by government agents, arrested, and held in section 209 of Evin themselves.[21] When the cleric himself was arrested in October, over 300 of his followers were taken along with him, five of whom were given prison terms ranging from two to five years.[22]

After his arrest in October 2006, Amnesty International alleges that Ayatollah Boroujerdi was held in an unheated cell in midwinter and tortured during interrogations. With his mother near death in February 2007, the Iranian authorities refused to grant him leave to visit her. When she died, the ayatollah went on hunger strike. Boroujerdi's trial before Branch 3 of the Special Clerical Court behind took place behind closed doors, with his sentencing coming that June. During the proceedings, the ayatollah did not have access to legal counsel and had his bail set at 5 million rials ($564,000 USD at the time). The SCC initially found him guilty on a variety of charges, including moharebeh ("warring against God"), challenging the political leadership of the Supreme Leader, and being connected to anti-revolutionaries and spies. Moharebeh, a charge that was also used against dissidents and protestors in the aftermath of Iran's disputed 2009 elections, carries the death penalty. An appeals court, however, reduced that sentence to 11 years in prison. Six of Boroujerdi's followers were sentenced to death alongside him, but their sentences were commuted as well.[23]

After being held in Tehran's Evin Prison, Ayatollah Boroujerdi was transferred to Yazd Central Prison in December 2008 and was placed in solitary confinement in January 2009. Before the transfer, the cleric's health had suffered, with his doctor stating that a variety of medical conditions, including a heart condition and kidney disease, required immediate treatment in an outside facility.[24] In May 2009, Ayatollah Boroujerdi wrote a letter to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon from Yazd, asking the United Nations to send international observers to Iran for a referendum on the Islamic Republic as a ruling system. In response, prison officials beat him and suspended his phone calls and visits with his family and attorneys. Boroujerdi responded with an almost two-week hunger strike, after which he was hospitalized in the prison's medical wing.[25] According to BamAzadi, a website managed by the ayatollah's supporters, Boroujerdi finally ended his hunger strike after 26 days. The same website accuses prison officials of forcibly drugging him in order to extract false confessions.[26] In August 2009, BamAzadi reported that Boroujerdi had been transferred back to Evin from Yazd.[27]

On November 28, 2011, Human Rights Watch publicly called on Iranian authorities to investigate threats and even direct attacks against Ayatollah Boroujerdi in prison. On November 22, a source close to the cleric told Human Rights Watch that a cellmate had tried to kill the ayatollah. Despite his status and his trial before the Special Clerical Court, Boroujerdi was being held in ward 350 of Evin Prison alongside violent offenders and drug traffickers. According to his family members and supporters, other prisoners had attacked or seriously threatened him on at least two other occasions.[28] The organization also described Boroujerdi's deteriorating health in prison; according to their source, he suffered from deteriorating eyesight, Parkinson's, diabetes, and high blood pressure, while the failure to treat his heart disease had led to fluid collecting in his lungs. Although prison doctors had allegedly advised Boroujerdi that he needed to be treated in a hospital, authorities had refused him access to the necessary care.[29]

On April 29, 2013, Ayatollah Boroujerdi's attorney, Giti Porfazel, gave an interview to Radio Farda, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Persian-language service. According to Porfazel, the Iranian authorities had continually denied Boroujerdi furlough from prison, in spite of his health concerns. She added that the conditions of his imprisonment also complicated his health issues. Since she had been denied contact with her client during his time in prison, Porfazel possessed limited information on the current state of his case; however, she had discovered that even laypeople associated with Ayatollah Boroujerdi had been brought before the Special Clerical Court, an action prosecutors had justified by stating that they were supporters of a cleric.[30]

Radio Farda's interview with Porfazel came after Boroujerdi, in spite of his detention, managed to release a statement from prison addressed to the "Islamic Awakening Conference" being held in Tehran that April. The Ayatollah's message was defiant; criticizing the Iranian government's attempts to capitalize on the Arab Spring while repressing dissidents at home, he wrote, "as a Muslim, I am truly embarrassed and humiliated by such deception and misrepresentation of faith. What is this regime’s rationale and purpose for inviting and gathering all the various clerics from other countries to Iran? In a country such as ours, under these conditions, what possible right does this regime have to speak of spirituality and piety? What gives them the right to browbeat and export their corrupted version of sanctity to the world?"[31] Two months later, on the day of Hassan Rouhani’s election as President of Iran, the imprisoned ayatollah wrote an open letter to the new leader. Questioning the latter’s ability to deliver on his promises of reform and reduced repression, Boroujerdi wrote, “Will the ravaged people of Iran forget? And what of the 34 years’ [worth] of opinions put forth by theoreticians of the Guardianship of the Jurist, who have claimed over and over again that society is the pasture of the Supreme Leaders, where the populace are nothing more than cattle and Khomeini and Khamenei are the shepherds? Were the heads of previous administrations able to move ahead of the Supreme Leader, that now, somehow, you can as well?” Nevertheless, he wished Rouhani “all virtue and good health in order for you to bring all your winning slogans to fruition for society.”[32]

While Boroujerdi was out of his cell visiting family who came to visit him in prison on March 15, 2014, authorities searched his room and through his belongings. Boroujerdi’s cellmates informed him they had been looking for letters and written material.[33] The dissident cleric was again brought before the Special Clerical Court for investigation on June 29, 2015, nearly ten years into his prison sentence. Ayatollah Kazemeini Boroujerdi has been granted neither access to an attorney nor a single day of furlough since the beginning of his sentence, despite reports he faces health issues in prison.[34]

Learn More

Ayatollah Kazemeini Boroujerdi's Wikipedia Page (in English)

BamAzadi: Information Base of Seyed Hossein Kazemeini Boroujerdi (in English)

Website of Ayatollah Boroujerdi's Representatives in the European Union(in Persian)

OpenDemocracy Feature on Ayatollah Kazemeini Boroujerdi (in English)




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