Tens of thousands of hard-line clerics rallied in cities across Iran on Saturday to denounce student protesters who burned photos of the country's supreme leader in a taboo-shattering act earlier in the week.
The rallies were a second day of protest by government supporters outraged by the destruction of photos of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, whom hard-liners believe is answerable only to God and above reproach. Authorities consider any criticism of him to be an insult to Islam and punishable by long jail terms.
The act by students at the core of Iran's opposition on Monday was a reflection of how a protest movement that began by rejecting President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's June 12 re-election as fraudulent has evolved to confront the country's ruling theocracy.
In one of Saturday's demonstrations in response to the students' actions, hard-line clerics in the southern city of Shiraz shouted, "Long live Khamenei, our leader." In the holy city of Qom, there were chants of "death to opponents of the rule of the jurist (Khamenei)."
The rallies were broadcast on state TV, which also aired Monday's images showing some students burning Khamenei's photo during demonstrations on university campuses _ igniting the rage of hard-liners.
Khamenei, who holds final say in all state matters, became a focus of opposition protests after he approved Ahmadinejad's re-election.
During Monday's student demonstrations, state TV also captured footage of one isolated case of a few men tearing up a photo of Khamenei's predecessor, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the father of Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution and an even more revered figure than the current supreme leader.
Opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi, the pro-reform candidate who says he was the rightful winner of the June election, has distanced himself from that incident, saying it was not done by his supporters.
"Those who support me would not allow the slightest insult to Imam Khomeini. ... I'm certain that the students would never take such an action because we know that they love the Imam," he said in a statement posted on his Web site Saturday.
Mousavi and other reformists say ruling hard-liners have lost legitimacy and are using the image of Khomeini's picture being torn up to try to discredit the opposition.
Khomeini's grandson, Hasan, also denounced state TV for broadcasting the images, describing them as "distorted."
Grand Ayatollah Youssef Saanei, a senior cleric who has supported Mousavi, took the same view, saying hard-liners were just trying to distract people from what he called their incompetence.
"When they (hard-liners) reach a deadlock, they make use of the Imam," Saanei said on his Web site.