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POOR SALMAM Rushdie. Although he renewed his faith in Islam and apologized for any offense given in his novel "The Satanic Verses," Iranian religious leaders still refuse to lift the assassination order issued by the Ayatollah Khomeini 22 months ago.

The ayatollah and many other Muslims believe that portions of the novel by Rushdie, an Indian-born Muslim and British citizen, blasphemed their religious faith.

We don't condone blasphemy. But the order to murder Rushdie, backed by a $1 million bounty, is barbaric.

It carries intolerance to an abhorrent extreme. It tyrannizes the mind and brutalizes the rights of free expression. Moreover, several writers and scholars with Islamic backgrounds have branded the 1989 call for violence against the author "antithetical to the Islamic traditions of learning and tolerance."

A group of moderate Islamic officials confirmed that Rushie had renewed his faith in Islam, had said he disagreed with any statements in the book that insulted
Islam or questioned the authenticity of the Koran and would decline to authorize any paperback version.

This obvious olive branch, coming well after the death of the Ayatollah Khomeini, presented the perfect opportunity for Iran's current supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to forgive and forget. In the process, he could graciously retreat from his predecessor's extreme position and demonstrate to the world a more humane and civilized leadership.

But the failure of Iran's religious Muslim leadership to do that -- and, on the contrary, its insistence that the order will stand even if Rushdie "repents and becomes the most pious man of his time" -- demonstrates a fanatic intolerance.

"The Imam's edict. . . ," bragged Ayatollah Khamenei, "and the Muslims' commitment to implement it are bearing their first fruits on the scene of confrontation between Islam and world infidelity."

They sure are. But bitter those fruits of brutal repression of human freedoms may turn out to be.

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