TEHRAN, Iran, March 13 (AP) - Iranians across the country on Tuesday jumped over raging bonfires that lit the night sky to celebrate an ancient festival marking the end of their year.

Celebrations for Chahar-Shanbe Suri (Wednesday Feast) begin on the last Tuesday evening of the year. Iranians young and old light bonfires, firecrackers and dance in the streets, hoping to put failures behind them and start the new year with prosperity.

The Iranian new year begins March 21.

The festival, one of the oldest traditions in Iran, is a symbolic opportunity to purify the soul for the new year. It also symbolizes revival and is marked by spring cleaning, buying new clothes and planting trees.

The festival has been frowned upon by hard-liners since the 1979 Islamic revolution because they consider it a symbol of Zoroastrianism, the ancient religion Iranians adhered to before the advent of Islam, and say it contradicts Islamic traditions. They have advised against holding the two-day celebrations.

``Chahar-Shanbe Suri is one of the superstitions and has no effect other than introducing blasphemy,'' the government-owned daily Iran quoted cleric Abbasali Akhtari as telling worshippers Friday.

This year's celebration was marked with fewer restrictions since it coincides with Wednesday's Qadir feast, an occasion celebrated by Shiite Muslims who believe Islam's prophet Muhammad appointed his son-in-law Ali as his successor during his last pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia.

``Chahar-Shanbe Suri is one of the most ancient feasts in the world. I'm proud of marking this festival that we have inherited from our ancestors. Clerics cannot prevent a national festival most Iranians are proud of,'' said shopkeeper Majid Sorkhi as he jumped over the fire in front of his shop in central Tehran.

Iranians consider fire a natural cleaning element and its red flames a sign of healthiness, liveliness and cleanness.

``I cannot understand why clerics ban almost everything that is good. My classmates and I enjoy celebrating this festival,'' said 16-year-old Ali Khosrowabadi.

The celebrations have in the past caused injury and even death as a result of some youths detonating explosives. Police have arrested 341 people for selling firecrackers in the past few days, state-run Tehran television said Tuesday.

Maryam Hosseinpour, a housewife, said official encouragement of the festival would improve its safety.

``Fighting ancient traditions will never succeed. Logic dictates that the clerics respect national festivals and provide facilities for a danger-free celebration,'' she said.

Unlike other countries in the Middle East, Iran and some of its neighbors follow the Persian calendar, which begins on the first day of spring. On March 21, Iran begins the year 1380.

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