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Khatami says Iran needs more than religious faith

By Mehrdad Balali

TEHRAN, Sept 12 (Reuters) - Reformist President Mohammad Khatami told the powerful Islamic establishment on Tuesday that Iran needed more than strong religious faith in order to keep pace with the West.

Khatami, a moderate Shi'ite Moslem cleric who advocates greater understanding of other cultures, told a large audience of mainly senior clerics that Iran should make greater scientific and industrial progress.

``Today, we are facing a giant and powerful civilisation in the West. We have to show the world where we stand when we call for 'Dialogue among Civilisations','' he told the seminar to promote prayers, held in the western city of Hamadan.

``If we are a passive and backward nation, we will not earn the dignity we deserve, no matter how faithful we are. To earn respect, we ought to have greater material, scientific and industrial resources. We have to be strong.''

Khatami delivered a message of peace and democracy in a speech to a millennium summit at the United Nations in New York last week. He also spoke of his pet project devoted to 2001 as the ``Year of Dialogue of Civilisations.''

Characteristically veiled in religious and philosophical language, Khatami's remarks on Tuesday appeared to be aimed at his hardline opponents, who have fiercely opposed his drive to democratise the Islamic system.


Unable to challenge the powerful establishment directly, the president has tried to instil his more liberal philosophy into mainstream conservative thinking.

Khatami called for the easing of religious and cultural restrictions on the youth, who make up the majority of the population.

``Young people have youthful demands. We should not be strict and make unreasonable demands on the young. Youngsters can't be expected to behave like old people,'' he said.

Khatami's more tolerant attitude has ensured his enduring popularity with young people, who demand relaxation of the strict social and cultural rules imposed after the 1979 Islamic revolution.

``We should instill our youth with greater faith and provide them with greater knowledge and skill to build a better future for their country and the world,'' he said.

``But this doesn't mean depriving them of their legitimate freedoms and variety and fun in life.''

The president urged young Iranians to pray more, but he challenged the notion of sacrificing worldly pleasures in search of spiritual salvation, a practice long promoted by religious orthodoxy in Iran.

``Ascetics retreat from society, believing the way to true salvation is to deny and suppress their natural human needs and urges,'' he said.

``Islam and a rational mind do not see things this way. God does not want us to suppress our lusts and urges in order to reach loftier ideals. Islam says we should rein in our lust, not suppress them,'' he said.


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