In a daring sermon conducted in front of senior government officials, Hojat Aleslam Sari Asl spoke of the resistance of Arab tribes in Dasht-e-Azadeghan (Alkhafajeyeh) against British invaders and the sacrifices Arabs made during the Iran-Iraq War. However, in spite of the loss of life suffered by the population they were not getting their fair share of government assistance and officials had betrayed their promises to develop the region.
He said: "There is a lot of backwardness and deprivation in this region. Despite trillions in signed contracts for natural gas and oil in the are, the government refuses to spend even five percent of oil revenue on the local population. Additionally, there is a high rate of air pollution but no consideration of the environmental crises. The Oil Minister during his visit last year stated that unfinished projects in the area will be completed, but a promised new 128 bed hospital in Susangerd has yet to be completed after 12 years."
The Imam also criticized the rate of employment of local people within many oil and gas companies. He added that local young people are graduating with relevant qualifications, but many staff were still being brought in from other regions. The executives of these companies claim that local people do not have relevant qualification and experience while more than 80 per cent of staff in oil companies are non-local and have no higher than a high school diploma.
The prayer leader appealed for improved water supply for farming, which is the main source of livelihood for many Ahwazi Arabs in the area. He criticised the mismanagement of water resources and added: "The government takes our oil and should give us water for farming."
Another area of concern voiced by the imam was the lack of decent housing. He raised the example of the Mehr national housing project which was supposed to construct 200 units of housing for local people in Marei, 7km from Susangerd, but construction had yet to start. A lack of job opportunities and poor social and economic development were contributing to a growing problem of drug addiction among local Arab youth.
Nasser Bani Assad, a spokesman for the British Ahwazi Friendship Society (BAFS), said: "It is unusual for clerics to make open political attacks on the government, but he obviously felt it his duty to give a voice to the local Ahwazi Arab population which continues to endure discrimination and poverty. The imam is saying little different to the complaints made by the Ahwazi Arab movement, which is outlawed in Iran. His religious position has given him some protection from arrest, but it was no doubt a brave statement to make.
Ahwaz Human Rights Organisation (AHRO)