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Wednesday, September 23, 1998 Published at 18:13 GMT 19:13 UK


Rushdie's relief over fatwa move

Author Salman Rushdie has spent nine years in hiding

Author Salman Rushdie is said to be "cautiously optimistic" after the Iranian Government appeared to distance itself from the death threat imposed on him by the late Ayatollah Khomeini.

Earlier on Wednesday the Iranian President, Mohammad Khatami, described the Salman Rushdie affair as "completely finished".

President Khatami's remarks came in a rare face-to-face encounter with Western journalists
Mr Rushdie was forced into hiding in 1989, after the publication of The Satanic Verses which the Ayatollah said blasphemed Islam.

President Khatami made his remarks to reporters in New York ahead of a historic meeting between UK and Iranian government ministers.

But Iranian officials made it clear that Mr Khatami's statement did not indicate the lifting of the edict.

This could only be rescinded by the late Ayatollah, and similar suggestions that were made when the then-foreign secretary visited Iran in 1994 came to nothing.

[ image: Mohammad Khatami: Issue is
Mohammad Khatami: Issue is "completely finished"
Dr Ghayasuddin Siddiqui, leader of the Muslim Parliament of Great Britain, was uncompromising.

He said the Iranian Government has no authority to revoke the fatwa, and "the position of the Muslim Parliament is independent of what may or may not happen in Tehran".

He reiterated his opposition to violence by British Muslims, however.

"As far as Muslims here are concerned, they should make sure they are not involved in carrying out the fatwa," he said.

Guarded welcome

UK Foreign Secretary Robin Cook is set to raise the issue when he greets his Iranian counterpart Kamal Kharrazi in the first encounter of its kind for four years.

But a UK Foreign Office spokesman gave the latest moves only a guarded welcome.

Rob Watson at the UN: "Salman Rushdie has spent much of the last nine years in hiding"
"We have heard these reports. We have always taken the opportunity of any meeting with senior Iranians to press for assurances of Salman Rushdie's safety," he said.

President Khatami did not address the issue of the fatwa directly, but said: "We should consider the Salman Rushdie issue as completely finished."

[ image: Ayatollah Khomeini declared fatwa before his death]
Ayatollah Khomeini declared fatwa before his death
The Iranian Government would take no action on the issue, he said.

Tehran had already said it would not send agents to kill Mr Rushdie, but a bounty on his head from an Iranian charity still stands.

Mr Rushdie has lived under police protection for the past nine years, although he has managed to continue making a number of public appearances, most recently in a BBC promotional trailer for digital television.

Diplomats said they would like to see the Iranian foreign minister make some practical measures to lessen the threat to author's life.

A number of Islamic groups around the world were outraged by The Satanic Verses, which they described as "blasphemous".

But the UK Foreign Office has always said ensuring Mr Rushdie's safety in Britain is a "fundamental point of principle".

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