QOM, Iran -- It's rare these days for a turbaned cleric in Iran to attract a large following of adoring young fans on Instagram, but Sayed Mahdi Tabatabaei has done it by rescuing street dogs in defiance of a local taboo.
Tabatabaei posts regularly -- to his more than 80,000 followers -- heartbreaking stories of abused and neglected dogs that he has treated in his shelter. His young fans ask for updates on the dogs and send well wishes in the hundreds of comments he receives on almost every post.
In some parts of the Muslim world, dogs are considered unclean, driven away with shouting, sticks and stones, and sometimes even shot by city workers in failed attempts to control the feral population.
Iran's ruling theocracy views keeping dogs as pets as a sign of Western decadence, and hard-liners have been pushing for laws that would prohibit walking them in public.
But that hasn't stopped Tabatabaei from opening a shelter in the city of Qom -- home to several major religious schools and shrines -- where he takes in street dogs and strays and nurses them back to health. He has become an unlikely advocate for animal welfare in a society deeply divided over the role of religion in public life.
Dogs are mentioned positively in the Quran and Islamic tradition encourages compassion for animals that are thirsty. Across the Middle East, people put out food and water for stray cats, often seen safely wandering in and out of public buildings. But in Iran and other countries, dogs are shunned by many and local authorities periodically shoot and poison them.
Iran's clerical establishment, which has ruled the country since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, proclaimed dogs to be "unclean" and advocates against keeping them as pets. Many younger Iranians ignore such calls, as they do other religious edicts.
Tabatabaei, an animal lover who wears the Shiite black turban signifying he is a descendant of Islam's Prophet Muhammad, seeks to bridge the divide.
"It's pretty interesting and kind of weird for them to witness a religious figure doing this stuff," he said. "My videos seem to leave a good impression on people too. They say they feel a wave of kindness, peace, and friendship coming through those videos."
It has gotten him into trouble with fellow clerics. When pictures surfaced of him tending to dogs while wearing his clerical robes, a religious court ordered him to be defrocked in 2021. The ruling was later suspended, but he remains cautious. These days Tabatabaei wears ordinary clothes while tending to the dogs and cleaning their kennels at Bamak Paradise, the shelter he established two years ago.
"We take in dogs with disabilities that cannot survive in the wild and have a hard time finding adoptive homes," he said. "Many of them are dogs I've personally nursed back to health. They stay here until they fully recover and regain their strength."
He relies on donations from animal lovers in Iran and abroad. He says the funds available for such pursuits have dried up in recent years as the United States has increased economic sanctions over Iran's disputed nuclear program. The country's banking system is almost completely cut off from the outside world, making it extremely difficult to transfer funds.
Within Iran, the economy has cratered, with the local currency plunging to a record low over the past year. With many Iranians struggling to get by, there is little left over for the cleric's furry friends.
"I appeal to Western governments, particularly the U.S. government and others capable of influencing the lifting of sanctions, to consider making exceptions for organizations like ours that engage in humanitarian and peaceful endeavors," he said.
"By allowing us to establish bank accounts and verifying our identities, we would be able to receive assistance from individuals and charities outside of Iran without them breaching the sanctions and risking legal complications," he added.
He also hopes for change within Iran -- specifically, a lifting of the ban on dog-walking in parks.
"Pet owners must take their dogs and other pets out for walks," he said. "Sadly, we still don't have laws to protect animal welfare, and there are no regulations in place to prevent animal cruelty."
Many Iranians, especially young people, have expressed frustration with clerical rule over the years, in waves of protests and in smaller acts of defiance. During nationwide protests last fall, following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while in custody of the country's morality police, Iranians posted videos online showing young men sneaking up behind clerics and batting their turbans off their heads.
But despite the recent tensions, Tabatabaei remains a beloved figure for many.
Zahra Hojabri recently found a puppy dying on the side of the road. The gentle cleric was the first person she thought of to help the tiny canine. "I think he is an angel, more than a human. I can't put it into words," she said.