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Leading Up to Anniversary of Ayatollah Khomeini's Death, Protest Erupts in Canada

This year, during Iranian commemorations of his death, a newly renovated shrine will be unveiled in Tehran in Khomeini's honour. A Toronto suburb, meanwhile, saw Iranian Canadian and Jewish groups standing shoulder to shoulder in protest.
Photo by STR/EPA

Undeterred by a torrential downpour, hundreds of screaming people waved soaked Israeli and Iranian flags — some holding both at the same time — across from an Islamic center near Toronto this weekend.

Protesters standing at the edge of the road with signs and megaphones peered into passing cars in Richmond Hill, Ontario, pounding their palms on the windows and doors of those pulling into the Islamic Society of York Region, a hub for Muslim culture north of Toronto, and swearing at cars with hijab-wearing passengers inside.


More than 250 people from Iranian Canadian and Jewish groups gathered for hours in the rainstorm to show their contempt of an event commemorating the "26th anniversary" of the death of Ayatollah Khomeini entitled "An Awakening Against Global Injustice."

All this week, similar commemorative events will take place in Iran and other parts of the world leading up to the anniversary of the death of Khomeini, the first Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, who came to power following the Iranian Revolution in 1979 that ousted the Shah of Iran. Khomeini died 10 years later in Tehran on June 3.

Khomeini is notorious for his involvement in the Iranian Hostage Crisis, during which more than 50 American diplomats and civilians were held inside the US Embassy in Tehran from November 1979 to January 1981, and for issuing a fatwa against author Salman Rushdie for his depiction of the Prophet Mohammad in his 1989 novel The Satanic Verses.

This year, during nationwide commemorations of his death, a newly renovated shrine will be unveiled in Tehran in his honor. Hundreds of thousands of Iranians make the journey by foot or bike from around Iran every year to mark the occasion in the capital city.

The gathering in the Toronto suburb, however, is one of the only annual events in Canada to commemorate the anniversary of the death of Khomeini. Police told VICE News it was the biggest turnout yet for the protests that have taken place for last few years against the annual event.


"We are protesting their gathering because Khomeini had the same ideology that ISIS has. It's the glorification of terror," Shahram Golestaneh, an Iranian Canadian and spokesperson for the Iran Democratic Association, told VICE News. He also pointed to Khomeini's history of persecuting religious minorities in Iran and imprisoning political dissidents.

"I'm worried about what impact such a celebration will have on the minds of children in Canada," he said.

Controversy over the event was simmering on social media leading up to Sunday. Jason Kenney, Canada's Minister of National Defense, tweeted his condemnation 10 days before it took place. "Disturbing to see anyone in Canada celebrating the murderous depravity of Ayatollah Khomeini's brutal dictatorship," he wrote.

Organizers of the event, which was by invitation only and required "Islamic dress code", told VICE News around 500 people showed up to hear speakers from around the world discuss the legacy of Khomeini and "the threat of imperialism." Following the speeches, there was also an "art competition," and a "pop quiz for all." Prizes included a laptop, a camera, and gift cards, according to the event's flyer.

Protesters included members of B'nai Brith Canada and the Jewish Defense League of Canada, which described the event as "pro-Khomeini terror recruitment." Other protesters adorned with plastic ponchos shouted "ISIS out! ISIS out!" at the center and warned that those attending the event were terrorists who supported the Islamic State (ISIS).


Tomer Joury, a protester from the Jewish Defense League of Canada, paced up and down the front of the protest with a muzzled German shepherd. "I'm here to support the freedom of our country," he told VICE News. "There's no problem with Islam, there's a problem with Islamic extremism. This event on their side represented terror because their laws are warped." Joury hopes Canadian law enforcement will investigate where this Islamic Society gets its funding and prevent this sort of event from happening in the future.

For Salman Sima, a spokesperson for the Iranian Liberal Students group, anything celebrating Khomeini's legacy amounts to brainwashing. "He was pure evil and we want Canadian lawmakers to limit the activities of this group and its speakers," he told VICE News.

A dozen police officers stood on the road between the protesters and the Islamic center to prevent them from trying to run past the center's security gates, which were guarded by volunteers wearing reflective vests. One protester was reportedly arrested early in the afternoon for trespassing and attempting to hit a police officer, but the York Regional Police could not confirm if this was the case by publication.

After the crowd began to dissipate, a police officer escorted VICE News to the center's security gate to speak with one of the event's volunteers. Officers said this was necessary to prevent protesters from following behind. VICE News was not allowed into the event.


As cars drove up, volunteers peered in to make sure it wasn't full of protesters trying to infiltrate the event. One Lexus SUV with around four people pulled up. And Syed Rizvi, one of the volunteers for the event, called over the police officers who commanded the driver to leave the premises right away.

"I just know when it's [the protesters] because their manner is so aggressive and disrespectful," Rizvi, an event spokesperson, told VICE News. He said he's grown used to the protests. "They try to intimidate and terrorize the people coming here. But it doesn't really impact us, our attendance is growing here."

He said the point of the event is to discuss the concept of self-determination for Muslim countries. "The purpose of this event is to say that power of any nation should belong to the people and their resources should be used by those people, not multinational corporations," Rizvi said.

At the accusation his group supports the Islamic State, Rizvi chuckled. "We really detest organizations like ISIS who give a really bad name to Islam. We would be the first people ISIS would kill because we believe on principles that are opposite to what ISIS supports. I almost find it humorous when they say that."

Rizvi said he would like to sit down and have a discussion with protesters before next year's event, but isn't holding his breath. " If they ever wanted to talk to us in a more civil manner, we'd be glad to do it peacefully," he said. "But I don't know how we can build any bridges with them after all of this."

Follow Rachel Browne on Twitter@rp_browne