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Waiting for the rapture in Iran

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For those who believe, the devotion is real. Tears stream down the cheeks of 2,000 men ripe for the return of the Mahdi, the 12th Imam they expect will soon emerge to bring justice and peace to a corrupt world.

Eyes stare upward and arms open wide to receive God's promised salvation. The storyteller's lyrical song speaks of tragedy on the path to salvation, prompting cries of anguish and joy.

As at a Christian revivalist meeting that promises healing and redemption, many weep as they pray for the Shiite Muslim version of the second coming of the Messiah. "Sometimes I feel they don't need me," says Mahdi Salashur, the religious storyteller, after leading congregants on an emotional late-night journey. "They are wired to God in their hearts."

Among the true believers is Iran's hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who predicted with "no doubt" his June election victory, months in advance, at a time when polls gave him barely 1 percent support. The president also spoke of an aura that wreathed him throughout his controversial UN speech in September.

"O mighty Lord," Mr. Ahmadinejad intoned to his surprised audience, "I pray to you to hasten the emergence of your last repository, the promised one, that perfect and pure human being, the one that will fill this world with justice and peace."

Later, at a private meeting with a cleric that was caught on video, Ahmadinejad shared his views of the moment. "I felt that all of a sudden the atmosphere changed, and for 27 to 28 minutes the leaders did not blink," he said. "They were astonished.... it had opened their eyes and ears for the message of the Islamic Republic."

A spokesman last week dismissed the video as fake (other sources confirm it is authentic), and denied that Ahmadinejad bases decisions on "heavenly affairs." But this presidential obsession with the Mahdaviat [belief in the second coming] yields a certitude that leaves little room for compromise.

From redressing the gulf between rich and poor in Iran, to challenging the United States and Israel and enhancing Iran's power with nuclear programs, every issue is designed to lay the foundation for the Mahdi's return.

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