TEHRAN (AFP) — Iranian clerics have told President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to stick to more worldly issues after he said the "hidden imam" of Shiite Islam was directing the country's affairs.
Ahmadinejad has always been a devotee of the Mahdi, the twelfth imam of Shiite Islam, who Shiites believe disappeared more than a thousand years ago and who will return one day to usher in a new era of peace and harmony.
But in a speech to theology students broadcast by state television on Monday, Ahmadinejad went further than ever before in emphasising his belief that the Mahdi is playing a critical role in Iran's day-to-day politics.
"The Imam Mahdi is in charge of the world and we see his hand directing all the affairs of the country," he said in the speech, which appears to date from last month but has only now been broadcast.
"We must solve Iran's internal problems as quickly as possible. Time is lacking. A movement has started for us to occupy ourselves with our global responsibilities, which are arriving with great speed."
Two leading clerics retorted that Ahmadinejad would be better off concentrating on Iran's social problems -- most notably its double-digit inflation -- than indulging in such mystical rhetoric.
"If Ahmadinejad wants to say that the hidden imam is supporting the decisions of the government, it is not true," sniped Gholam Reza Mesbahi Moghadam, the spokesman of the conservative Association of Combatant Clerics.
"For sure, the hidden imam does not approve of inflation of 20 percent, the high cost of living and numerous other errors," he said, according to the Kargozaran daily.
Ali Asghari, a member of the conservative Hezbollah faction in parliament, told the president not to link the management of the country to the imam.
"Ahmadinejad would do better to worry about social problems like inflation ... and other terrestrial affairs," the Etemad Melli daily quoted him as saying.
Since becoming president in 2005, Ahmadinejad has repeatedly stated that his government is paving the way for the return of the Mahdi and chided his foes for not believing that his return is imminent.
Shiites believe that the Mahdi vanished in the 10th century and will return at an apocalyptic moment that will mark the end of time.
Ahmadinejad's focus on that has previously caused controversy, while other governments have usually place their emphasis on other figures such as the Imam Ali, the cousin of the prophet Mohammed and first imam of Shiite Islam.
Earlier this year, Iran's former top nuclear negotiator Hassan Rowhani complained that superstition was growing in the country and that people were even putting out food for the Mahdi in case he returned that very night.
Ahmadinejad also raised eyebrows when he said he felt surrounded by a mystical aurora when he gave his first speech to the UN General Assembly in New York in 2005.
Similarly, in his latest speech, Ahmadinejad said the Mahdi had guided his "victory" in his famous talk to barracking students at Columbia University in New York last year where he was greeted as a "a petty and cruel dictator".
"I recalled the imam and I said to him 'help so that this scene is to the benefit of Islam'," he said.
Ahmadinejad's vision has adherents in Iran. Every year tens of thousands of pilgrims make their way to the Jamkaran mosque outside Qom, an increasingly important site where the Mahdi is once said to have appeared.
"Iran will be the focal point of the management of the world, thanks to God," Ahmadinejad added in the speech.
"In this region an event has to happen. The hand of God must appear and will make the roots of injustice in the world vanish.
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