Bahrain strips top Shiite cleric of nationality over promoting 'sectarianism and violence’

Bahrain's leading Shi'ite cleric Sheikh Isa Qassim © Hamad I Mohammed
A leading Shiite cleric in Sunni-ruled Bahrain has been stripped of his nationality at the request of the Interior Ministry, who accused him of “serving foreign interests” and spreading sectarian discord.

Sheikh Isa Qassim, who is considered to be the spiritual leader of Bahrain’s Shiite majority, was accused of using his position to "serve foreign interests and promote... sectarianism and violence," Bahraini BNA state news agency reported, citing the Interior Ministry.

The cleric was also accused of “adopting theocracy and stressing absolute allegiance to the clergy," the ministry said in its statement, adding that the top cleric repeatedly contacted “organizations and parties that are enemies of the kingdom,” AFP reports.

Qassim, who is Bahrain’s most senior Shiite clergyman and holds the senior religious title of Ayatollah, is accused of playing a key role in creating an “extremist” atmosphere and dividing society, BNA adds, citing the Interior Ministry.

The move provoked a wave of public indignation among Bahrain’s Shiite majority. Angry protesters gathered near the cleric’s home in the village of Duraz to show their solidarity with their spiritual leader.

The crowd, reportedly comprised of hundreds of people, chanted in front of the cleric’s home and denounced the government’s decision as unjust.

Ali Alaswad, a former Bahraini MP from the recently suspended Al-Wefaq party, the largest opposition group in Bahrain, also denounced the move, tweeting that the government had “abandoned the language of reason and dialog and opted for a hard way by alienating the majority of population.”

The US is “alarmed” by the Bahraini government’s decision to strip the spiritual leader of the Shiite majority of citizenship, the US State Department spokesman John Kirby said in a statement.

“We are alarmed by today's decision to revoke the citizenship of Shia cleric Sheikh Isa Qassim. We are unaware of any credible evidence to support this action," Kirby said, as quoted by Reuters.

The cleric is the latest Bahraini citizen to be stripped of nationality. In recent years 250 people have been deprived of Bahraini citizenship because of alleged disloyalty to the regime, according to AP data.

The decision to revoke Qassim’s citizenship comes just a week after a Bahraini court ordered the offices of Bahrain’s largest opposition Shiite group, Al-Wefaq, to be closed and its assets frozen amid the widening crackdown on activists that took part in the 2011 Arab Spring protests.

The court also set October 6 as the date for a hearing on the party’s “liquidation,” meaning that the kingdom’s largest opposition group could be dissolved entirely.

In late May, another Bahraini court more than doubled the prison term for Al-Wefaq’s secretary-general, Sheikh Ali Salman, who was earlier convicted of inciting unrest and calling for regime change. Salman’s prison term was extended from four to nine years.

Prominent Bahraini opposition activist Nabeel Rajab – who in an interview with RT had denounced Salman’s prison term extension as a crackdown on the opposition and noted that almost all of the country’s opposition leaders are behind bars– was himself arrested on June 13. The reasons behind the new arrest of Rajab, the man who founded the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, remain unclear.