QOM, Iran (AP) — It’s rare these days for a turbaned cleric in Iran to attract a large following of adoring young fans on Instagram, but Sayed Mahdi Tabatabaei has done it by rescuing stray dogs in defiance of a local taboo.
Tabatabaei regularly posts – to his more than 80,000 followers – heartbreaking stories about abused and neglected dogs he treated at his shelter. His young fans ask for updates on the rescues and send him well wishes in the hundreds of comments he receives on almost every post.
In some parts of the Muslim world, dogs are considered unclean, chased away with screams, sticks and stones, and sometimes even shot by city workers in failed attempts to control the wild population.
Iran’s ruling theocracy sees keeping dogs as pets as a sign of Western decadence, and hardliners have pushed for laws prohibiting public walking.
But that hasn’t stopped Tabatabaei from opening a shelter in the city of Qom — home to several major religious schools and shrines — where he takes in street and stray dogs and nurses them back to health. He has become an unlikely advocate for animal rights in a society deeply divided over the role of religion in public life.
Islam prohibits cruelty to animals and promotes feeding those in need. Across the Middle East, people provide food and water for stray cats, which often roam safely in and out of public buildings. But in Iran and other countries, dogs are shunned by many, and local authorities regularly shoot and poison them.
Iran’s ecclesiastical establishment, which has ruled the country since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, has declared dogs “unclean” and advocates against keeping them as pets. Many younger Iranians ignore such calls, as do other religious edicts.
Tabatabaei, an animal lover who wears the Shia black turban, signifying he is a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, tries to bridge the gap.
“It’s pretty interesting and kind of weird for them to see a religious figure do this sort of thing,” he said. “My videos also seem to leave a good impression on people. They say they feel a wave of kindness, peace and friendship coming through those videos.
It has gotten him into trouble with fellow clerics. When photos surfaced of him grooming dogs while wearing his church robes, a religious court ordered him removed from office in 2021. The ruling was later suspended, but he remains cautious. Today, Tabatabaei wears regular clothes as he cares for the dogs and cleans their kennels at Bamak Paradise, the shelter he founded two years ago.
“We take in dogs with disabilities who cannot survive in the wild and find it difficult to find adoptive families,” he said. “Many of them are dogs that I have personally nursed back to health. They will stay here until they are fully recovered and regained their strength.”
He depends on donations from animal lovers in Iran and abroad. He says resources available for such activities have dried up in recent years as the United States has stepped up economic sanctions over Iran’s disputed nuclear program. The country’s banking system is almost completely cut off from the outside world, making it extremely difficult to transfer money.
Within Iran, the economy has plummeted, with the local currency falling to a record low over the past year. With many Iranians struggling to make ends meet, little is left for the cleric’s furry friends.
“I appeal to Western governments, especially the US government and others who have influence over the lifting of sanctions, to consider making exceptions for organizations like ours engaged in humanitarian and peaceful efforts,” he said.
“Allowing us to open bank accounts and verify our identity would allow us to get help from individuals and charities outside of Iran without them violating sanctions and risking legal complications,” he added.
He also hopes for change within Iran, in particular a lifting of the ban on walking dogs in parks.
“Pet owners should walk their dogs and other pets,” he said. “Unfortunately, we still have no laws to protect animal rights and no rules to prevent animal cruelty.”
Over the years, many Iranians, especially young people, have expressed their frustration with church rule, in waves of protests and smaller expressions 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 knocking their turbans off their heads.
But despite the recent tensions, Tabatabaei remains a beloved figure for many.
Zahra Hojabri recently found a dying puppy on the side of the road. The kind clergyman was the first person she thought of to help the little dog. “I think he is an angel more than a human being. I can’t put it into words,” she said.