Overnight clashes between followers of a Sufi Islam leader and Iranian police killed five members of the security forces and injured 30, Iranian media reported Tuesday (20 February), the latest tension between the mystical order and authorities. Over 300 were arrested.
Supporters of Sufi leader Nourali Tabandeh have been holding sporadic sit-ins near his home in Tehran, worried that the 90-year-old former deputy justice minister after Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution could be detained by police. That fear stems from the recent January protests in Iran in which police detained Sufis.
Tabandeh has had close relationships with liberal activists.
Earlier on Monday, Sufis had rallied in front of a police station demanding the release of a detainee. They later rallied in front of Tabandeh's home, where police started to try to disperse them. Previous rallies saw Sufi followers carrying clubs and knives, which they used to clash with police.
The semi-official Fars news agency said a Sufi follower rammed a bus into a group of police officers, killing three of them before being arrested late Monday.
The official IRNA news agency on Tuesday quoted police spokesman Gen. Saeed Montazeralmahdi as saying two members of the Basij forces also were killed in a stabbing and another car-ramming attack, which also injured 30. Police arrested over 300 Sufi followers, including the drivers of both vehicles, he said. Tabandeh himself remains free.
Police have blocked off streets to the site of the clash and deployed a number of officers to the area.
Sufis are a branch of Islam that emphasizes direct mystical experience over mainstream religious practices. While they have been influential in many Muslim countries in history, they have been persecuted by both Sunni and Shiite religious establishments.
In Iran, pressures increased on Sufis during former hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's government. During Iran's 2009 disputed re-election of Ahmadinejad, Tabandeh supported one of Ahmadinejad's main challengers, Mahdi Karroubi, who has been under house arrests since 2011.
In 2007, Sufis clashed Iranian security forces in the central Iranian town of Boroujerd after authorities decided to close a Sufi lodge. Authorities closed down a similar venue in the holy Shiite city of Qom in 2006.
While no official statistics are available for Sufi groups in Iran, there are reports that estimate their population between two and five million (between 3–7% of the population), according to Wikipedia.