TEHRAN, Iran (AP) -- A group of 554 clerics has demanded release of Iran's most prominent dissident, Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, who has been under house arrest in Qom since 1997.
Montazeri's detention is ''illegal and illegitimate'' and should be lifted immediately, the clerics said in a petition to the country's senior religious authorities.
Montazeri, 79, was once designated to succeed Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, father of the 1979 Islamic revolution. But the two ayatollahs fell out over Montazeri's liberal views before Khomeini died in 1989.
The petition, received by The Associated Press, was unprecedented in that all 554 listed their names. It said Montazeri's health is ''extremely dangerous and worrisome'' and deplored a ''catastrophe which has hurt the hearts of Muslims.''
Montazeri was confined after he questioned the legitimacy of clerical rule, including the authority of supreme leader Ali Khamenei. Khamenei accused Montazeri of treason and, days later, hard-liners attacked Montazeri's home and office. Talk about his fate has been taboo in Iran ever since.
Montazeri continues to enjoy a large religious following among Shiite Muslims around the world.
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