A photo of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad embracing the mother of Hugo Chavez at the Friday funeral for the late Venezuelan president has outraged religious leaders in the Islamic Republic.
Islamic law forbids unrelated men and women from touching, and Ahmadinejad is seen in the photo in a cheek-to-cheek embrace with a sobbing (and bareheaded) Elena Frias.
NBC wrote that the image had sparked controversy in the Iranian press, as well as going viral on Twitter and Facebook.
The network cited the Iran Pulse as quoting Hojat al-Islam Hossein Ibrahimi, a member of the Society of Militant Clergy of Tehran, who said:
"In relation to what is allowed [halal] and what is forbidden [haram] we know that no unrelated women can be touched unless she is drowning at sea or needs [medical] treatment."
The New York Daily News quoted a conservative member of the Iranian parliament, Seyyed Mohammad Pourfatemi, as calling on clerics to "confront seriously and condemn the president’s latest actions and not allow him to do what as he pleases when it comes to infringing Islamic laws."
The Telegraph quoted Mohammad Taghi Rahbar, the Friday prayer leader of Iran's second city, Isfahan, as saying"
"Shaking hands with a non-mahram [unrelated by family] woman, under any circumstances, whether young or old, is not allowed. Hugging or expressing emotions is improper for the dignity of the president of a country like the Islamic Republic of Iran."
The LA Times noted Ahmadinejad's terse relationship with Iran’s powerful clerics, adding that the president — who is serving his final term — had already annoyed clerics by comparing Chavez him to religious figures such as Jesus Christ and the Hidden Imam, Shia Islam's messiah-like figure.
Ahmadinejad has long been at odds with Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, and Dehghan also used the term "perverted group" — which has been used by Khamenei supporters to describe the circle close to Ahmadinejad.
Meanwhile, Al-Arabiya cited Iranian lawmaker Mohammed Dehghan as calling for religious scholars to confront Ahmadinejad’s "un-Islamic" acts.
However, the LA Times also interviewed Iranians who supported his seemingly compassionate treatment of his longtime ally's mother.
Hassan, 30, a teacher, told the newspaper in Tehran:
“I didn’t vote for President Ahmadinejad, but good for him. I am happy. He is getting back at the hard-liners."
Some saw the funny side. Ali, a motorcycle courier, joked:
"So did President Chavez convert to Islam? Or did the president convert to Catholicism?"