Bahrain has stripped the kingdom’s most prominent Shia cleric of his citizenship for using his position to “serve foreign interests” and promote “sectarianism and violence.”
Interior Ministry said in a statement 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,” an apparent reference to Shia-majority Iran.
The cleric, who holds the religious rank of ayatollah, has backed protests led by the majority Shia community for greater civil and political rights.
Announcing the move to strip him of his Bahraini citizenship, the interior ministry said the cleric had “adopted theocracy and stressed the absolute allegiance to the clergy”.
It added that he had been in continuous contact with “organisations and parties that are enemies of the kingdom”.
The incident comes days after Bahrain’s government suspended the leading Shia opposition grouping, Wefaq National Islamic Society, closing its offices and ordering its assets to be frozen.
Wefaq’s political leader, Shia cleric Sheikh Ali Salman, is in prison and recently had his jail term increased to nine years, after being convicted in 2015.
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.
Many protests started rejecting the decision and chanting against the Bahrain’s authorities.
— Nabeel Rajab (@NABEELRAJAB) June 20, 2016
الجموع تبدأ الزحق نحو منزل سماحة الاب القائد آية الله الشيخ عيسى احمد قاسم الاثنى عشر المرزوق الدرازي pic.twitter.com/2moMxcnuSn
— Adel Al.Marzooq (@AdelAlmarzooq) June 20, 2016
Human right breaches, or moves against Iran’s intervention ?
Bahrain’s citizenship law allows for the cabinet to revoke the citizenship of anyone who “causes harm to the interests of the kingdom or behaves in a way inimical with the duty of loyalty to it”.
Human Rights Watch says more than 200 Bahrainis were stripped of their citizenship last year, in some cases making them stateless.
Those involved may appeal against the decision, but the human rights group says Bahrain’s courts “appear to grant the authorities absolute discretion” in such cases.
Ayatollah Qassim was born in Bahrain and activists say he does not hold any other nationality.
Hussein Abdulla, executive director of campaign group Americans for Human Rights and Democracy in Bahrain, called the move to revoke his citizenship “an unprecedented low for the Bahraini authorities”.
The Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy, said it was concerned the action would “escalate tensions on the streets and may even lead to violence”.
Human Rights Watch said it took the country “into the darkest days” since 2011, when demonstrators took to the streets to demand greater political rights and an end to discrimination against the Shia majority.
Later that year, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa brought in troops from neighbouring Sunni-led Gulf states to restore order and crush dissent. The unrest left at least 30 civilians and five policemen dead.
Opposition activists say dozens of people have been killed in ongoing clashes between protesters and security forces, while bomb attacks blamed on Iran-backed militants have left a number of police officers dead.