TEHRAN, Iran — In a sign of endurance for Iran's protest movement, demonstrators clashed with police Friday as one of the nation's most powerful clerics challenged the supreme leader during Muslim prayers, saying the country was in crisis in the wake of a disputed election.
The turnout of tens of thousands of worshipers for former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani's sermon at Tehran University and the battles with police outside represented the biggest opposition show of strength in weeks. Protesters faced fierce government suppression and hundreds were arrested following the June 12 presidential election.
Outside the university, protests grew from several hundred people before the sermon to thousands afterward as worshipers joined in, chanting "death to the dictator," a reference to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Protesters were confronted by riot police and a menacing line of pro-government Basiji militiamen on motorcycles, who charged with batons. Dozens were arrested and taken away in trucks, witnesses said.
The sometimes tearful sermon by Rafsanjani could be a significant boost to the movement's staying power. It was an open challenge to the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, aired live on nationwide radio from one of the country's most potent political stages.
Worshipers chanted "azadi, azadi," Persian for "freedom," during Rafsanjani's sermon, his first since the election. Opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi sat among the worshipers.
Rafsanjani denounced the government crackdown on protests and called for the release of the hundreds detained.
He reprimanded the clerical leadership for not listening to people's complaints over the election, which was declared a victory for Ahmadinejad despite opposition accusations of fraud.
Rafsanjani avoided directly mentioning Khamenei or outright calling the vote fraudulent. He couched his sermon in calls for unity in support of Iran's Islamic Republic.
Tears welled in the cleric's eyes as he spoke of how Islam's prophet Mohammed "respected the rights" of his people. He said the founder of Iran's Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, "would always say that if the system is not backed by the people, nothing would stand."