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Khomeini revered as Iran's revolution hits 30

Iran marks the anniversary of its 1979 Islamic revolution on Tuesday.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 10, 2009

Sacred place: Iranian students visit the Jamaran prayer hall in Tehran, where former leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini once preached fiery sermons laced with anti-American rhetoric.

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Tehran, Iran

In dim light from high windows, the stream of schoolchildren never stops. Class after class of pupils, herded by their teachers, make their pilgrimage to the place where Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution, once preached.

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A banner leaves no doubt about today's lesson: "This revolution is not known anywhere in the world without the name Khomeini."

As Iran marks the 30th anniversary of its revolution on Tuesday, the ayatollah's defiant spirit still towers above all. From Iran's opposition to America as the "Great Satan," to the spread of its ideology of resistance – as well as loving family moments – Khomeini's legacy lives on in fact and myth.

"The imam [Khomeini] would enter through this door," religion teacher Alireza Boroujerdi tells his group of 20 attentive boys sitting on the floor of the Jamaran prayer hall in North Tehran. "From this closed and small place, he would move the world. He would say something and the backs of world leaders would shake."

Khomeini lived simply, yet he inspired the "oppressed people" of Lebanon and the Palestinian territories to "stand up and resist" Israel, Mr. Boroujerdi tells the students. Every night he prayed, and cried so much that he needed a towel because "tissues were not enough to wipe his tears," Boroujerdi says.

Such faith leads inexorably to triumph for the Islamic Republic, lectures the brown-robed cleric.

The Omid (Hope) satellite launched by Iran last week has "orbited around the Earth 60 times already, all because of this leader," he says. "Our independence and reliance on God – all this is because of what happened here."

Forging a new society

Although the official history is taught to Iranian pupils, those who knew or met Khomeini describe an enigmatic man who not only toppled the pro-Western Shah Muhammad Reza Palavi, but reinterpreted Shiite doctrine to make way for the supreme religious rule of the Velayat-e Faqih.

But the fight to forge an Islamic republic was a ruthless one.

State-run TV channels are full of grainy footage of the bloody protests of 1979 and before, and of the mass rallies that marked his return to Iran after years in exile.

Iraq's invasion of Iran in 1980, after deep purges in the shah's military forces, was another challenge to the regime.

Tens of thousands of "martyrs" died at the front lines and in human wave attacks, cementing a Shiite ideology of martyrdom, sacrifice, and self-reliance that is revered by devotees to this day. In 1988, several thousand prisoners were taken from jail and executed.

But it was a different scene at home, remembers Khomeini's granddaughter, Zahra Eshraghi.

"On TV he was a tough, stern person. But at home he was very soft, very warm, and very calm. He would never get angry with us."

The ayatollah's softer side

"He would help me study. He insisted I go to university," says Mrs. Eshraghi, adding that he used to call her regularly to talk and to encourage more study before she took on a degree in Western philosophy. "He was much closer to us than a traditional grandfather."