Thousands of Iranian government supporters staged rallies Friday to denounce opposition students who burned photos of the country's supreme leader in protests this week.
At marches in Tehran and other cities after Friday prayers, participants shouted the traditional hard-line slogans "Down with the U.S." and "Down with Israel," Iranian state TV reported, but their ire was largely directed against the government's persistent domestic opposition.
The demonstrations marked the first response by Iran's clerical leadership and its supporters to the taboo-shattering actions of their opponents on Monday, when tens of thousands of students protested at universities around Iran.
Some of the student protesters burned pictures of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, a potent insult to a leader who some hard-liners believe gets his power from God. Some also burned images of his predecessor, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of 1979 Islamic revolution that toppled the U.S.-allied shah.
State TV aired footage of the pictures being burned, stoking outrage among hard-liners.
The students' act was also a reflection of how a protest movement that began by airing allegations that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's June 12 re-election was fraudulent has evolved to confront the country's ruling theocracy.
Friday's response from the government began with an emotional prayer sermon by Kazem Sedighi in which the cleric, with tears in his eyes, said the students' actions "tormented hearts."
"The issue has reached a point where the picture of Imam Khomeini is insulted," he said. "They questioned things that are sacred."
He said emotional students were deceived Monday when they confronted the revolution.
His remarks were met by cheers of "Death of hypocrites" from worshippers in a reference to the opposition and one of its leaders, Mir Hossein Mousavi, the pro-reform candidate who says he was the rightful winner of the June election.
After the midday prayers, pro-government protesters held marches and read out statements asserting that the opposition failed to "achieve their miserable aims by insulting" Supreme Leader Khamenei.
Monday's student demonstrations marked an effort by the opposition to energize the protest movement through the young people who are at its core.
A fierce crackdown by authorities swept hundreds of thousands of protesters from the streets in the weeks after the June vote. Allegations emerged soon after that some of those detained in the unrest were tortured, and authorities silenced pro-reform figures and activists by putting more than 100 of them on trial.
The opposition says at least 72 protesters were killed, while the government puts the number of confirmed dead at 30.
In an attempt to return to the streets, the opposition has been staging periodic rallies on days when Iranians mark political and religious events that traditionally bring state-sanctioned street demonstrations. The strategy aims to draw as many people as possible and attract more attention.
Monday's rallies, for example, occurred on National Students Day.