Bahrain strips top Shiite cleric of nationality
Hundreds of protesters are demonstrating in Bahrain after its government stripped a leading Shiite cleric of his nationality.
The Bahrain News Agency quoted the Interior Ministry as saying that Sheikh Isa Qassim had played a key role in creating an extremist sectarian atmosphere and had formed groups that "follow foreign religious ideologies and political entities".
After the decision was announced, several hundred of the cleric's supporters gathered outside his house in the mostly Shiite village of Diraz, carrying posters and chanting religious slogans.
Sayed al-Wadaei, director of advocacy at the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy, said the decision will escalate tensions and may lead to violence.
The tiny island nation off the coast of the Arabian Peninsula has been in turmoil since a 2011 uprising backed by majority Shiites demanding greater rights from the Sunni-led monarchy. Bahrain crushed the protests with the help of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Sunni allies suspicious of Iran and opposed to growing Shiite influence in the region.
Saudi Arabia's senior council of clerics, who follow an ultra-conservative Sunni ideology that is at odds with Iran's Shiite clerical leadership, welcomed the actions taken by Bahrain.
The Interior Ministry statement said Qassim had endorsed "the theory of theocracy" and had used his sermons to serve foreign interests, an apparent reference to Iran. It said he had harmed the supreme interests of the country in doing so.
A contentious and broadly worded article of the law in Bahrain allows the government to strip citizens of their nationality if "the person causes harm to the security of the state".
The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein, said at least 250 people have been stripped of their Bahraini citizenship in recent years due to alleged disloyalty. Rights groups say at least five were deported in recent months after having their citizenship stripped.
Just last week, the country's largest Shiite opposition group, Al-Wefaq, was suspended. The group's secretary general, Sheikh Ali Salman, has been sentenced to nine years prison.
Also last week, Bahrain's authorities detained prominent rights activist Nabeel Rajab on charges related to this criticism of the government.
Bahrain hosts the US Navy's 5th Fleet.
International non-governmental organisation Human Rights Watch said the decision to strip the cleric of his citizenship "takes Bahrain into the darkest days" since the 2011 crackdown.
"These actions should be met with serious consequences, not expressions of concern," the rights group said.
Lebanon's Hezbollah, an Iran-backed Shiite militant group, denounced the decision on its Al-Manar TV network, which called on Bahrainis to "express their indignation" and said the move against the cleric would have "grave consequences".