CAIRO, July 5 (UPI) -- A powerful group of clerics is publicly supporting Iranians who believe their nation's presidential election was rigged, political observers said.
In a posting on its Web site, the Association of Researchers and Teachers of Qum Saturday called the election illegitimate and chastised government leaders for the use of force in crushing public protests across Iran last month, The New York Times reported Sunday.
The powerful clerics also urged other religious leaders to join them in fighting the government's refusal to adequately reconsider charges of voter fraud.
The clerics' statement was an act of defiance against Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the most public sign, so far, of a split in the nation's clerical establishment, said Abbas Milani, director of the Iranian Studies Program at Stanford University.
"I don't ever remember in the 20 years of Khamenei's rule where he was clearly and categorically on one side and so many clergy were on the other side," Milani said.
Khamenei's government has portrayed the opposition, and its top presidential candidate, Mir Hussein Mousavi, as traitors, while encouraging the nation to accept incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for another term.