LONDON -- Salman Rushdie, the author condemned to death by the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, was received unexpectedly yesterday by Prime Minister John Major in his Parliament office.
Mr. Rushdie had asked for the meeting with the prime minister as a demonstration of Britain's commitment to protecting him and as a forceful repudiation of the fatwa, or death sentence, issued by the ayatollah in 1989 and still held in force by the current rulers of Iran.
Mr. Rushdie, whose novel "The Satanic Verses" was interpreted by the ayatollah as blasphemous to Islam, was smuggled into the prime minister's private office.
Two months ago, the 45-year-old author met publicly in the House of Commons with Labor Party leader John Smith, who said, "It is intolerable that a British citizen, or indeed a citizen of any country, should be under a threat of death from a foreign government."
Mr. Rushdie has lived in hiding since the death sentence, which can be carried out by any Muslim who finds him. He is under the protection of the British security services. Religious fundamentalists in Tehran have put a price on his head of almost $2 million.
News of the surprise meeting drew mixed reactions, positive from human rights sources and negative from some members of Mr. Major's Conservative Party.
"It's wonderful. At last it is official support from the government and country in which he lives and which should have protected him much better earlier on," said Andrew Graham-Yool, editor of the Index on Censorship magazine. "They should have campaigned much harder on his behalf much earlier," he said.
Edward Heath, a former Tory prime minister, was unhappy about the meeting. He said Mr. Rushdie's book mocking the prophet Mohammed was losing "masses of trade" for Britain.
Peter Temple-Morris, chairman of the Britain-Iran parliamentary group, which includes members of all parties, said he feared that Mr. Major's decision to receive the author would "whip the whole thing up again." He added: "Every time we make progress, Rushdie . . . puts his head up and plays into the hands of the fundamentalist clerics."
The Indian-born author, though living clandestinely, has appeared in 10 countries, including the United States, since being condemned, and has developed strong support throughout Europe. He has long wanted Britain to assert more forcefully its opposition to Iran in an attempt to get the death sentence lifted.
Britain, however, has been moving closer to Iran. In September, 1990, it restored partial diplomatic relations with Tehran, broken after the fatwa was issued.
But the Iranians have remained determined to see the punishment carried out.
Last week, a British trade mission to Tehran was canceled by the Iranians to show their displeasure with the stiffening British position with regard to Mr. Rushdie, which first became evident in February, when the author was invited to a public meeting at the Foreign Office with Douglas Hogg, the minister responsible for the Middle East.