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True believers dial messiah hotline in Iran

Energized by president's beliefs, end-of-timers redouble their outreach.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 4, 2006



QOM, IRAN

Have a quick question about when the Mahdi is coming to save mankind, according to Shiite Muslim adherents? Need to know the signs?

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Just call the new messiah "hotline." Or log on to Bright Future News Agency to get the latest religious readout - all part of the effort by freshly rejuvenated true believers in Iran to spread their message of the imminent return of the Mahdi, the 12th Imam who is expected to return to impose justice and spread peace.

"People are anxious to know when and how will He rise; what they must do to receive this worldwide salvation," says Ali Lari, a cleric at the Bright Future Institute in Iran's religious center of Qom.

"The timing is not clear, but the conditions are more specific," he adds. "There is a saying: 'When the students are ready, the teacher will come.' "

Paving the way is a renewed commitment to "Mahdaviat" beliefs by the ultraconservative government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who lives so modestly that declared assets include only a 30-year-old car, an even older house, and an empty bank account.

These ideologues see the creation of the Islamic Republic in 1979 and efforts to rekindle its revolutionary ideals, as critical to paving the way for the Mahdi's return.

They say that return - which they believe will happen soon - will prompt a global battle between good and evil (not unlike biblical "Armageddon" interpretations), and herald an era of justice, peace, and the ultimate triumph of Shiite Islam.

The Bright Future Institute is preparing the ground, a leaflet explains, by developing the "true culture" of waiting for the Mahdi, "reject[ing] wrong ideas and preparing scientific answers to respond [to] superstitions," while working to "accomplish an ideal society which Imam Mahdi wants."

While he waits, Morteza Rabaninejad sits at a new computer with a new telephone and a new headset, answering five calls and 10 letters a day.

"Would you please explain all the signs of rising?" writes one correspondent. "What are the things we must do to make the Mahdi rise earlier than he is supposed to?"

Started in 2004, the institute is the eighth of its kind in Iran to study and even speed the Mahdi's return. But it is the largest and most influential, with 160 staff, a growing reach in local schools, children's and teen magazines, and unlimited ambition to spread the word.

The blend of modern technology and ancient prophecy echoes efforts of US evangelicals who use 45 categories - from liberalism to natural disasters - to predict the "end time," when holy people will experience "rapture" and go to heaven. For them, the "Rapture Index" (www.raptureready.com) is at 151; anything higher than 145 means "Fasten your seatbelts," because of what they deem a high level of prophetic activity.

In Iran, theologians say end-of-times beliefs appeal to one-fifth of Iranians. And Jamkaran mosque east of Qom, 60 miles south of Tehran, is where the link between devotees and the Mahdi is closest.

Mr. Ahmadinejad's cabinet has given $17 million to Jamkaran. Staff at the Bright Future Institute downplay his interest, arguing the amount is just $2-3 million, and that their effort is privately funded. They claim that former President Mohammad Khatami also spent "a lot" on Jamkaran.

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