By Steve Inskeep
February 11, 2016
Imam Aziz Babaei's Sunni mosque is
located unobtrusively within this upscale Tehran neighborhood. It's one of the
few Sunni mosques permitted in the city. Steve Inskeep/NPR
We've been talking with a Sunni Muslim who
lives in Shiite-dominated Iran. He's a member of one of the two great sects of
Islam, which are increasingly seen in conflict. His story suggests just how
perilous that conflict could be.
Last month, a crowd in Tehran attacked the
embassy of Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia. They were protesting Saudi Arabia's
execution of a Saudi Shiite cleric who had criticized the Saudi government.
The Iranian torching of the Saudi embassy
became another episode in the cold war between these two regional powers. It
also underlined an awkward reality: Religious faiths don't obey the borders on
An Iraqi protester holds a poster of Shiite
cleric Nimr al-Nimr, who was executed in Saudi Arabia, during a protest Monday
in front of the gate of the Green Zone in Baghdad.
The executed cleric was one of several
million Shiites who live in Saudi Arabia. Just across the Persian Gulf, several
million Sunnis live in Iran.
They include the Sunni preacher who opened
his door to us last week in western Tehran.
We had to ask around the neighbourhood to
find this place of worship. It has no dome. There's no minaret. You might
compare it to an American storefront church, except there's no storefront.
You just have to know it.
Aziz Babaei, the imam, wearing a white
turban and gray clerical robe, laughed when he was told that Americans had
found him here.
Leaving our shoes at the door, we walked
into a carpeted prayer room and settled into plastic chairs to talk.
He welcomed us to his mosque. That is,
"We call it a mosque," he said, though it doesn't quite meet the
formal definition. He said it's a rental property, not permanent, as a mosque
is supposed to be.
He signaled his wife to bring tea as we
"What's it like to be a Sunni among so
many Shias?" I asked.
We live together nicely, he told me.
He takes exceptional care to make it so.
When Shiite mosques issue their five calls
to prayer every day, they're amplified through loudspeakers and echo down every
street. But the Sunni man who sings the call to prayer for this mosque does it
indoors, so few people hear.
This worship space is so obscure that some
foreign news articles have stated as fact that there is no Sunni mosque in
Tehran at all.
The imam says he came from western Iran,
near the country's border. It's near the borders, drawn long ago, that the
largest numbers of Sunnis can be found. Sunnis moved to the capital for work,
and Aziz followed to look after their souls some 20 years ago.
His flock has grown. Some custodians of the
upscale homes in this neighbourhood are Sunni refugees from Afghanistan. They
worship at Babaei's hidden Sunni mosque.
Their imam insists his people are tolerated
by the neighbourhood. People don't even complain, he says, when worshipers park
their cars all over the neighbourhood.
But tolerance only goes so far.
Babaei says the administration of Iran's
former president tried to shut down this worship space. Hassan Rouhani, the
current president, is publicly more tolerant — but the State Department says
Iranian Sunnis have been imprisoned for their beliefs. And news reports have
said at least one Sunni place of worship in Tehran was shut down last year.
I asked him what he thinks when he hears
news of an illegal Sunni worship space being demolished in Tehran.
"Demolish" is not the right word,
Babaei insisted. He said improvised mosques are usually shut down just for
violating building safety codes.
It goes without saying that a Sunni in Iran
must speak with care.
Through our interpreter, Aziz Babaei said
he condemns the burning of the Saudi Embassy in Tehran. But he also condemns
the act that prompted it, the Saudi execution of the Shiite cleric.
I asked if Iran's security officials come
in and check his mosque from time to time.
"Yes," he said. Sometimes
intelligence agents come here openly to talk. Sometimes they're invisible,
joining the hundreds of worshipers prostrate on the floor.
The imam said he's been telling all Sunnis
to be careful. One radical act could bring pain on the whole community.
The visiting security agents gave him a
crucial insight: They said Iran's Sunnis will be safe so long as the Islamic
Republic does not view them as a threat.
At least in that respect, the security men
added, Sunnis are no different than any Shiite.