TEHRAN, Iran – An high-level Iranian cleric said Friday that the religious edict calling for the killing of Salman Rushdie cannot be revoked, and he warned Britain was defying the Islamic world by granting the author knighthood.
Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami reminded worshippers of the 1989 fatwa during a sermon at Tehran University, aired live on state radio. Thousands of worshippers chanted "Death to the English."
Khatami does not hold a government position but has the influential post of delivering the sermon during Friday prayers once a month in the Iranian capital. He did not directly call for the fatwa to be carried out.
"Awarding him means confronting 1.5 billion Muslims around the world," Khatami said. "In Islamic Iran, the revolutionary fatwa ... is still alive and cannot be changed."
Then-Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued the fatwa in 1989, calling on Muslims to kill Rushdie because his book "The Satanic Verses" was deemed insulting to Islam. Rushdie was forced into hiding for a decade, and the edict deeply damaged Britain's relations with Iran. In 1998, the Iranian government sought to patch up ties by declaring that it would not support the fatwa but that it could not be rescinded.
Queen Elizabeth II's decision to knight Rushdie drew a complaint from the Iranian government and protests around the Muslim world.
About 2,000 people rallied in several Pakistani cities on Friday, calling for Rushdie to be killed and for a boycott of trade with Britain.
A leader of Pakistan's Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam party compared Rushdie's award to the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad published last year in a Danish newspaper, which provoked protests and rioting in Muslim countries.
"Earlier they had published cartoons of our Prophet, and now they have given an award to someone who deserves to be killed," Abdul Ghafoor Hayderi told a crowd of about 1,000 people in Karachi, Pakistan's largest city.
Pakistan is a close ally of the United States and Britain in the war on terror, but it has condemned Rushdie's knighthood.
In India's Muslim-majority Kashmir region, a strike over Rushdie's honor closed most shops, offices and schools in the summer capital, Srinagar.
Mufti Mohammad Bashir-ud-din, head of Kashmir's Islamic court, said Rushdie was "liable to be killed for rendering the gravest injury to the sentiments of the Muslims across the world."
Britain has defended its decision to honor Rushdie, one of the most prominent novelists of the late 20th century. His 13 books have won numerous awards, including the Booker Prize for "Midnight's Children" in 1981.
Muslims angered by Britain's decision protested in London on Friday.
"Rushdie is a hate figure across the Muslim world because of his insults to Islam," said Anjem Choudray, protest organizer. "This honor will have ramifications here and across the world."
The award, announced Saturday, was among the Queen Elizabeth II's Birthday Honors list, which is decided on by independent committees who vet nominations from the public and government.
Some analysts have expressed surprise his award was approved.
"There is an impression they really didn't consider the potential reaction," said Rosemary Hollis, director of research at London's Chatham House think tank. "But there is a sense that showing too much sensitivity is to kowtow to radicals."