Tehran, Iran – The congregation calls came through announcements and bulk SMS.
But amid international attention to the protests that have rocked Iran following the death of a woman in the custody of the country’s “morality police,” the mass gatherings called for in embassies served to show support, not opposition, to the Iranian government.
The calls followed a similar effort two days ago after Friday prayers attended by thousands.
The demonstrations are part of an effort by the Iranian authorities to crack down on what they call “norm-breaking” behavior exhibited during nine days of nationwide protests since the death of 22-year-old woman Mahsa Amini.
The counter-protests carried religious symbolism in support of the theocratic establishment that came to power in 1979 after an Islamic revolution, as organizers claimed copies of the Koran and Iranian flags were burned during the protests.
Government supporters have also denounced what they perceive as foreign intervention in Iran’s affairs, particularly by the United States – which has been supporting the protests and said earlier this week it would make an exception to its sweeping sanctions regime on Iran in order alleviate internet disruptions.
State-organized assemblies have traditionally enjoyed the full support of the police and security forces, and are widely covered on state television and in the media. Anti-government protests, where demonstrators often chant anti-establishment slogans and their leaders, go unsanctioned and are broken up by the security forces.
Sunday’s latest pro-government gathering comes after President Ebrahim Raisi and other authorities vowed to “tack decisively against those who oppose the security and tranquility of the country”.
Protests against “riots”
The protests began after Amini, who was arrested for allegedly not following Iran’s dress code for women in Tehran, suffered a stroke and died after several days in a coma.
Authorities said Amini was not beaten and tried to explain her death with pre-existing health problems, a claim her family denied.
The protests are believed to have killed dozens and arrested thousands so far, but authorities – who describe the protests as “riots” – are yet to release official figures.
State television said Saturday that at least 41 people were killed and state media reported that “739 rioters, including 60 women,” were arrested in northern Gilan province alone.
Several of those killed were members of the police, security forces and Basij paramilitary forces, according to authorities, who also claimed others were killed by “invaders” by foreign governments and secessionist forces.
A major group accused by the authorities was Komala, a leftist pro-independence ethnic Kurdish party that Tehran considers a “terrorist” group.
The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) allegedly shelled Komala positions in neighboring Iraq’s northern Kurdish region on Saturday and Sunday, claiming the group was attempting to bring “armed teams and a large quantity of weapons” into Iran to do so exploit protests.
According to state media, members of the ISIL (ISIS) “terrorist” group, Komala, and the Iranian Kurdistan Democratic Party, another armed separatist group, have been arrested in several northern and northwestern provinces.
They also reported on Saturday that the IRGC had defused a bomb attack in northwest Tabriz, East Azerbaijan province.
Online and International Response
While many in Iran are concerned about separatist groups, protesters on the streets are showing a level of anger and frustration not seen in years amid security forces’ crackdown.
Videos of the protests continue to come out of cities across Iran, despite the biggest internet restrictions since the November 2019 protests. Restrictions include blocking WhatsApp, Instagram, LinkedIn and Skype, leading to full filtering of social media and messaging platforms in Iran.
The authorities seem to have restricted Internet access more purposefully than in previous waves of protests.
While internet access was completely shut down for almost a full week in 2019, hampering access even to local websites and basic government and banking services, the current restrictions are much more calculated and do not disrupt basic services.
In recent days, restrictions have been tightened from around 4pm to midnight, as protests usually start in the late afternoon and continue throughout the night.
Restrictions severely impact cellular connections and also make it extremely difficult to connect to Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) that help bypass internet blocks.
Meanwhile, tech billionaire Elon Musk’s promise to activate its SpaceX-powered Starlink satellite internet constellation to allow unrestricted internet use in Iran has caused problems. Experts warn that malware claiming to be Starlink software is being used by hackers to fool users.
Outside Iran, the United Nations, European Union and human rights groups have called for independent investigations into the protests and the state response. Protesters have also taken to the streets in cities in Australia, Iraq, Germany, Greece, New Zealand, Turkey, Sweden, the UK and the US to show solidarity with Iranian protesters.