Defying taboos, a Shia cleric in Iran takes in street dogs and treats them

QOM, Iran (AP) — It’s rare these days for a turbaned cleric in Iran to attract a large following of adoring young fans on Instagram, but Sayed Mahdi Tabatabaei did it by rescuing street dogs in defiance of a local taboo.

Tabatabaei regularly posts – to his more than 80,000 subscribers – heartbreaking stories of abused and neglected dogs he cared for at his shelter. His young fans are asking for updates on the rescues and sending their best wishes in the hundreds of comments he receives on nearly every post.

In some parts of the Muslim world, dogs are considered unclean, hunted with shouts, sticks and stones, and sometimes even shot by city employees in failed attempts to control the wild population.

Iran’s ruling theocracy sees keeping dogs as pets as a sign of Western decadence, and hardliners have pushed for laws banning their public walking.

But that hasn’t stopped Tabatabaei from opening a shelter in the city of Qom – home to several major religious schools and shrines – where he takes in stray and stray dogs and cares for them. He became an unlikely animal rights advocate in a society deeply divided over the role of religion in public life.

Islam prohibits cruelty to animals and promotes food for those in need. Across the Middle East, people are handing out food and water to stray cats, often seen roaming safely in and out of public buildings. But in Iran and other countries, dogs are shunned by many people, and local authorities periodically shoot and poison them.

Iran’s clerical establishment, which has ruled the country since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, has proclaimed dogs to be “unclean” and advises against keeping them as pets. Many young Iranians ignore these appeals, as they do other religious edicts.

Tabatabaei, an animal lover who wears the black Shia turban signifying he is a descendant of Islam’s prophet Muhammad, seeks to bridge the gap.

“It’s quite interesting and a bit weird for them to see a religious figure doing this kind of stuff,” he said. “My videos also seem to leave a good impression on people. They say they feel a wave of kindness, peace and friendship through these videos.

This got him in trouble with other priests. When photos surfaced of him tending to dogs while wearing his clerical robe, a religious court ordered he be defrocked in 2021. The decision was later shelved, but he remains cautious. These days, Tabatabaei wears ordinary clothes while caring for dogs and cleaning their kennels at Bamak Paradise, the shelter he started two years ago.

“We welcome dogs with disabilities who cannot survive in the wild and who have difficulty finding adoptive homes,” he said. “Many of them are dogs that I have personally cared for. They stay here until they fully recover and regain their strength.

He relies on donations from animal lovers in Iran and abroad. He says the funds available for such activities have dried up in recent years as the United States has stepped up economic sanctions against Iran’s disputed nuclear program. The country’s banking system is almost completely cut off from the outside world, which makes it extremely difficult to transfer funds.

In Iran, the economy has collapsed, with the local currency plunging to a record low over the past year. With many Iranians struggling to get by, there isn’t much left for the cleric’s furry friends.

“I call on Western governments, especially the US government and others able to influence the lifting of sanctions, to consider making exceptions for organizations like ours that engage in humanitarian and peaceful activities,” did he declare.

“By allowing us to open bank accounts and verify our identities, we would be able to receive assistance from individuals and charities outside Iran without them breaching sanctions and risking legal complications. “, he added.

He also hopes for change in Iran, in particular a lifting of the ban on dog walking in parks.

“Pet owners should take their dogs and other pets for walks,” he said. “Unfortunately, we still don’t have laws to protect animal rights, and there are no regulations in place to prevent cruelty to animals.”

Many Iranians, especially young people, have expressed their frustration with the clerical regime over the years in waves of protests and small acts of defiance. During nationwide protests last fall following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while in the custody of the country’s vice police, Iranians uploaded videos showing young men sneaking up behind clerics and throwing off their turbans.

But despite recent tensions, Tabatabaei remains a figure beloved by many.

Zahra Hojabri recently found a dying puppy on the side of the road. The kind clerk was the first person she thought of to help the little dog. “I think he’s an angel, more than a human. I can’t put it into words,” she said.

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