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In defiance of taboos, an Iranian cleric opens a shelter to house and treat street dogs and cats


These days, it is rare for a turbaned cleric in Iran to interest such a large young fan following on Instagram, but Mr. Mehdi Tabatabai did so by rescuing street dogs in defiance of local taboos.

More than 80,000 people regularly follow Tabatabai’s heartbreaking stories of dogs that were abused and neglected before he treated them.

The Iranian cleric asks his young fans to help him as much as possible, as they express their admiration for what he is doing through positive comments and posts.

Most Islamic sects consider dogs to be “unclean” and may not be kept indoors. They are used for guarding and hunting, for example. However, despite the fact that Islamic religious teachings prohibit the use of violence against animals, different practices of violence are practiced against these animals.

But this did not prevent Tabatabaei from opening a sanctuary in the city of Qom, home to many schools and major religious shrines of the Shiite community, where he takes street dogs to treat them, and to be one of the most unique defenders of the rights of these creatures, in a society that raises many question marks about the role of the cleric in its surroundings.

Across the Middle East, people give food and water to stray cats, who often roam safely in and out of public buildings.

But in Iran and other countries, people avoid dogs and local authorities periodically shoot and poison them.

Bridge the gap

The Iranian religious establishment, which has ruled the country since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, considers dogs “impure” and prohibits keeping and breeding them. However, many young Iranians ignore such calls.

Wearing a black Shiite turban indicating that he is a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, Tabatabai is trying to bridge the gap society has created for people like him.

“It seems strange for them to see a religious figure doing these things,” he says. “My videos also seem to make a good impression on some people. They say it makes them feel nice, peaceful and friendly.”

After Tabatabai gained fame on social media, a religious court ordered the cleric to take off his special clothes in 2021, and to wear another that does not indicate any religious mission.

These days, Tabatabai wears casual clothes while tending to the dogs and cleaning their kennels at Pamac Paradise, the shelter he set up two years ago.

“We receive disabled dogs who cannot survive in the wild and we have difficulty finding homes to adopt them,” he says.

Lifting penalties for animals

Tabatabaei relied on donations from animal lovers in Iran and abroad, and notes that there is difficulty in obtaining funds for such purposes, as the United States has tightened economic sanctions over Iran’s nuclear program, leaving the country’s banking system completely isolated.

He says: “I appeal to Western governments, especially the US government and other countries that are able to influence the lifting of sanctions, to consider exceptions for organizations involved in humanitarian and peaceful endeavors.”

He also hopes for change inside Iran, in particular, to lift the ban on accompanying dogs in parks.

He adds, “Pet owners should accompany their dogs and other pets for walks. Unfortunately, we still don’t have laws to protect animal rights, and there are no regulations in place to prevent cruelty to animals.”

Many Iranians, especially young people, have expressed their frustration with clerical rule over the years, in waves of protests and small acts of defiance.

During nationwide protests last fall, following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while in the custody of the country’s morality police, Iranians posted videos online showing young men sneaking up behind clerics and removing their turbans before escaping.

But despite recent tensions, Tabatabaei remains a likable figure for many.

Merry C. Vega is a highly respected and accomplished news author. She began her career as a journalist, covering local news for a small-town newspaper. She quickly gained a reputation for her thorough reporting and ability to uncover the truth.

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