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Khamenei criticizes New Year celebrations

TEHRAN, March 23 (AFP) - Iran's spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has criticized certain aspects of celebrations of the Iranian new year and said allowing people to observe a popular spring festival was a mistake.

Khamenei, in remarks reported by Iranian radio, said the Festival of Fire, in which people jump over bonfires and set off firecrackers, is a "superstitious festival of which Islam does not approve."

The interior ministry "made a mistake" in allowing celebrations to go ahead this year for the first time since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, he told the radio late Monday.

The Festival of Fire, which was permitted despite its obvious roots in Zoroastrianism, the pre-Islamic religion of ancient Persia, was observed last week ahead of Sunday's New Year's Day.

While criticizing the Festival of Fire, Khamenei welcomed celebrations of the Iranian new year, or Nowrouz, which date from the Zoroastrian period but have adopted a number of Islamic elements.

"Islam give human and spiritual content to Nowrouz," he said, also giving his blessing to the upcoming festival of nature known as "Sizdeh Bedar." "Islam approves of it because it is good to celebrate nature," he said.

Iran entered the year 1378 on Sunday. The Islamic Republic dates its centuries in the Moslem way, starting from the Hegira, the flight of the Prophet Mohammed from Mecca to Medina in 622 of the Christian era. But it never adopted the lunar calendar used by other Moslems. Instead, it kept its ancient solar calendar, giving it a unique dating system.

Khamenei's remarks point to the sensitive balance between the Islamic regime and popular traditions in a country with a rich history pre-dating the Moslem era.

The election of reformist and moderate cleric Mohammad Khatami as president in May 1997 has seen a revival of popularity for ancient rites along with Persian nationalism, a source of consternation for the Islamic clergy.


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