Spiritual leader Mohammad Ali Taheri attracted a significant following in Iran by spreading the word of mystical love and the idea that he could help cure the sick by connecting them to divine powers.
“I haven’t used any medicine in five months and I’ve fully recovered,” a proclaimed former multiple-sclerosis sufferer exclaims in one , one of many posted on social media that are keeping Taheri’s teachings and treatments alive.
But his work has earned him a death sentence in the Islamic republic — a punishment Tehran normally reserves for drug dealers and those who take up arms against the regime — and sparked calls for leniency and allegations of a cover-up.
What would the Islamic republic have to fear from the slightly built, mustached 60-year-old, who wears plain Western suits and peppers his speech with mystical poetry, Koranic verses, and scientific references?
Taheri founded the Circle of Mysticism, a group that promotes a mystical understanding of the universe and faith healing, nearly a decade ago, and was initially tolerated by the regime.
He was allowed to preach and teach in public, and his classes and healing sessions were attended by people from all walks of life, including government officials. Several of his books were published with permission from the Culture Ministry.
Taheri’s notoriety grew to the point that at one point even Iran’s tightly controlled state television reported about one of his honorary doctorates.
But Taheri’s fortunes appeared to change as the growing appeal of his teachings coincided with warnings by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and other officials against “false mysticism,” which they said could turn believers away from real Islam.
Since then, Taheri has undergone a transformation in the eyes of the Iranian authorities, and now appears to serve as an example of the regime’s commitment to weeding out “false mystics.”
Taheri was first arrested in 2010, on security charges, and was released after spending more than two months in jail.
He was rearrested in 2011, reportedly held in solitary confinement, and convicted of a host of charges, including acting against Iran’s national security, insulting sanctities , and touching the wrists of unrelated female patients.
Meanwhile, a smear campaign was in full swing, with hard-line conservative websites and blogs referring to his group as a “deviant sect” and claiming that he had amassed an “illicit” fortune through his teachings.
After three court sessions in October 2011, he was handed a five-year prison sentence, and has since been held in a section of Tehran’s notoriously harsh Evin prison controlled by the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).
Then, in early 2015, more criminal proceedings were launched against him.
Taheri’s group and work were again scrutinized, with hard-line media reporting that three senior Qom-based clerics had declared Taheri an apostate after reviewing his writings and audiovisual materials.
In July, it was confirmed that he had been found guilty of “spreading corruption on Earth,” a criminal charge often used in the early years of the Islamic republic against opponents of the regime.
Taheri has maintained a strong following despite his troubles.
One follower in Tehran, who spoke to RFE/RL on condition that she not be named, attributes the spiritual leader’s popularity to his “positive consciousness radiation.”
“Sometimes you meet someone and you have a good feeling, without even knowing that person,” she explains.
She claims to have attended a number of Taheri-run healing sessions in which adults and children with different medical conditions were cured, and says the Circle of Mysticism allows followers to understand “where we came from, what we’re doing, and where we’re heading.”
One online video shows Taheri addressing a crowd of several hundred people seated in a Tehran University conference hall. They’re listening to a man in a brown suit giving them a lecture about mysticism and healing.
“We have to return to the source to understand many issues,” Taheri is seen telling them.
In another video he makes a potentially controversial statement about the word of God.
“Just by saying ‘I seek refuge in God,’ [a Koranic verse] is a problem resolved? We believe without connection, without entering the circles [of God’s compassion], it’s hard,” he says.
Much of his following centers on his suggestion that he and his trained educators can facilitate the connection between patients and a divine source, whom he claims can scan patients for possible illnesses. “It’s all about the issue of connection, there are no tools, no techniques,” he says.
In one video, Taheri is seen holding a young man who seems to be in pain. “You have to tell me what you see so that I can neutralize it,” Taheri says.
When their leader came under fire, Taheri’s supporters came out in the dozens to hold protests in front of Evin prison and at other locations to call for his release. And just like their leader, many members of Taheri’s team of educators within the Circle of Mysticism have been arrested and jailed.
Iran’s top human rights lawyer, Nasrin Sotoudeh, says that she believes that Taheri’s success was his and his followers’ undoing. “I think his growing influence exposed him to the death sentence,” Sotoudeh says in a telephone interview from Tehran.
To underline Taheri’s influence in society, Sotoudeh claims that even some of the security officers tasked with monitoring a protest she organized were followers of the mystic.
Taheri’s death sentence, according to Ali Asghar Ramezanpour, who served as deputy culture minister under former reformist President Mohammad Khatami, can be viewed as a warning to others.
“After Ali Khamenei warned against false mysticism, meaning spiritual viewpoints that are different from Iran’s state line, the IRGC’s intelligence branch took steps to demonstrate that it was moving against such groups,” Ramezanpour tells RFE/RL.
However, Ramezanpour says that when he attended one of Taheri’s lectures in the early 2000’s, he saw nothing questionable. “Based on what I saw there and also based on Taheri’s writings, I didn’t find anything that pointed to heresy or promotion of atheism,” he says. “As a result, the Culture Ministry was not sensitive about the issue.”
Taheri’s plight was recently highlighted by the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein. The U.S. State Department has expressed concern over Taheri’s death sentence. And rights watchers have noted a crackdown against not only Taheri, but his team of educators.
“Some reports suggest that at least 30 of Taheri’s educators have been arrested and sentenced to prison in the past several years,” Amnesty International researcher Raha Bahreini says.
Following worrying reports that Taheri had been tortured and forced to make a televised confession, his death sentence has also given birth to allegations of a cover-up.
Shahnaz Niroumanesh, a California-based follower of Taheri and the director of the Internuniversalist organization, claims that he died more than six months ago as the result of torture and a hunger strike.
Fearing that news Taheri died in prison could spark riots, Niroumanesh says, the faith healer’s sentence was issued as a way to give the authorities an out. Niroumanesh says she received news about Taheri’s alleged death from sources in Evin prison.
Taheri’s sister, Azardokht Taheri, who is based in Canada, refutes the suggestion that her brother is dead. She says Taheri is in “good spirits,” and met with one of his lawyers as recently as August 8 and spoke to another by phone on August 10.
“Every week his wife and his [two] children visit him and once a month other family members,” she says. “He also calls his wife twice per week.”
She believes the charges against Taheri are the result of a “misunderstanding” of his ideas, and is holding out hope that his death sentence will be overturned on appeal.