ATHENS, Greece -- An Iranian cleric said Sunday the death edict issued by the late Ayatollah Ruhullah Khomeini against author Salman Rushdie was still valid and 'will be carried out,' Iran's official news agency said.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was referring to the religious edict which Khomeini issued against Rushdie Feb. 14, 1989, calling on Muslims anywhere to kill him for writing the novel 'The Satanic Verses,' which many Muslims consider blasphemous.
A dispatch by the Islamic Republic News Agency monitored in Athens quoted Khamenei as saying: 'The death decree against the apostate Salman Rushdie is inalterable' and 'the verdict must be carried out and will be carried out.'
Khamenei was speaking to a group of Muslim clerics and Friday prayer leaders in Tehran on the fourth anniversary of Khomeini's 'fatwa,' or religious edict against Rushdie.
The Indian-born British author, who went into hiding after the edict against him was issued four years ago, has recently made public appearances in several countries, including Britain, the United States and Germany.
Sunday, Rushdie was in Britain and addressed a chapel service at King's College, Cambridge, where he called the edict against him a 'straightforward terrorist threat' and appealed for free speech.
'Just as King's Chapel may be taken as a symbol of what is best about religion, so the fatwa has become a symbol of what is worst,' Rushdie said.
'One cannot properly call it a sentence, since it far exceeds its author's jurisdiction, since it contravenes fundamental principles of Islamic law, and since it was issued without the faintest pretence of any legal process.'
He said the 'fatwa' was attempting to destroy secular morality and that for many people, it was necessary to 'construct our ideas of the good without taking refuge in faith.'
'That is where our freedom lies, and it is that freedom, among many others, which the fatwa threatens, and which it cannot be allowed to destroy,' Rushdie said.
Carmel Bedford, a spokeswoman for the International Rushdie Defense Committee, said hope remained the edict would be lifted.
'There are clear indications that Western pressure is starting to take its toll on Iran's leaders -- they are currently in a position where they are trying not to lose face but there are signs that international condemnation is starting to bite,' Bedford said.
The IRDC said recent statements holding Iran responsible for the safety of Rushdie had been issued by Canada, Denmark, Germany, Finland, Ireland, Norway and Sweden.
And Rushdie's well-publicized meetings with Western government figures, and interviews on Western television networks, is apparently being taken as a provocation in Iran and a sign that Western states did not want the issue to die down.
Britain has called on Iran to drop the decree. The British stand is that Khomeini had no authority to pass a death sentence against one of its citizens in the first place. Rushdie was living in Britian at the time his book was written and published.
IRNA quoted Khamenei as saying: 'We don't care about the dissatisfaction of Britain and other European states over the issue. We too are angry at many of their actions.'
Khamenei said the late ayatollah had fired 'an arrow at this impudent apostate. The arrow is moving toward its target and will sooner or later hit it.
'It is incumbent upon every Muslim who has access to this mercenary author to drive this harmful being out of the way of Muslims and punish him,' he said.
He repeated an official Iranian stance on the issue, saying: 'The Imam's (Khomeini's) verdict is irreversible and no one is able to make a deal over it.
'Solving the Rushdie issue is possible only through the handing over of this apostate and infidel person to Muslims,' he added, calling on the British government to 'hand over the apostate Rushdie to Muslims to be punished.'
Khamenei, who suggested in 1989 that the fatwa may be withdrawn if Rushdie apologized publicly for writing the book, reversed his stand after Khomeini refused to withdraw the death decree under any circumstances.
Two weeks ago, Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani said in a news conference in Tehran that only Khomeini had the religious authority to reverse the fatwa, and since he was dead, his ruling must stand.
Khomeini died of cancer in Tehran about four months after issuing the death edict.
Western diplomats suggested Iran would have liked the matter to quietly die down, without being seen to make official efforts to have the fatwa withdrawn.
Any official move to withdraw the fatwa may provide a weapon to Rafsanjani's hard-line Islamic fundamentalist opponents, 'no one dares to withdraw it,' one diplomat said.
A relatively low-ranking cleric in Tehran recently raised to $2 million the bounty he offered to anyone who killed Rushdie.
Diplomats said the original fatwa, the bounty offer and the frequent calls by Iranian clerics for Muslims to kill Rushdie could be considered encouragements to international terrorism.