TEHRAN — Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Sunday urged Iranians to shun next week's Persian fire festival as an un-Islamic event which causes "a lot of harm."
Seven people have already been reported killed in the runup to the festival, ISNA news agency said, quoting a police chief.
Charshanbe Soori, an ancient pagan festival, is held on the eve of the last Wednesday of the Persian calendar year. This year, the ritual falls on the night of March 16.
Khamenei, Iran's all-powerful cleric, said on his website that Charshanbe Soori has "no basis in sharia (Islamic religious law) and creates a lot of harm and corruption, (which is why) it is appropriate to avoid it."
The festival is a prelude to Nowrouz, the Persian New Year which starts on March 21 and marks the arrival of spring.
In the past few years, local municipalities have helped Iranians organise the festival but it is unclear whether they will do so this year in the wake of Khamenei's remarks.
Iranians celebrate the fire festival by lighting bonfires in public places on the night before the last Wednesday and leaping over the flames shouting "Sorkhiye to az man, Zardiye man az to (Give me your redness and I will give you my paleness)."
Leaping over the flames symbolises the wish for happiness in the new year and an end to the sufferings of the past year.
Several casualties are reported from the event every year and many participants suffer burn wounds, including from accidents with firecrackers linked to the event, as they start marking the festivals days in advance.
Iran's deputy police chief Ahmad Reza Radan said that "so far seven people have been reported killed" while making or lighting firecrackers, ISNA reported, adding that most firecrackers are smuggled into Iran.
Some clerics see the ritual as heretical fire worshipping, although it has been marked in Iran for centuries and, like the Persian New Year itself and some other ancient rituals, has survived the advent of Islam.
Perceptions are that supporters of Iranian opposition leaders could use the ritual this year to stage anti-government protests.
Main opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi, however, has urged his supporters not to use the event for anti-government rallies and not to provoke hardliners during Charshanbe Soori.
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