05/10/2005, 00.00
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Sunni-Shiite tensions rise as discrimination grows

Manama (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Ethnic and religious discrimination is growing in Bahrain, this according the International Crisis Group (ICG), a Brussels-based international advocacy and crisis resolution NGO.

ICG warns that the Shiite community—as much as 70 per cent of the population—is increasingly politically and socially marginalised with the effect that sectarian tensions between Sunnis and Shiites are rising.

Similarly, the gap between the government and the opposition is widening at a time of rising unemployment and poverty.

In 2001, Bahrain's ruler, Sheikh Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, had announced a sweeping reform plan for the island nation of 700,000 people. However, reform so far has failed in two important respects according to the ICG.

First, the touted new political contract between rulers and ruled has not changed the social structure. Secondly, reforms have not tackled sectarian discrimination and tensions. Indeed, the latter have been exacerbated, as the majority Shiite community feels increasingly politically marginalised and socially disadvantaged. 

For instance, the ICG report shows how electoral districts are drawn to guarantee a Sunni majority in parliament even though they are a minority in the country. By the same token, Sunnis from other Arab countries have been naturalised and admitted into the army and the police (about 60,000).

Sunnis also dominated public sector employment, especially in the ministries of the Interior and Defence.

Shiites are instead increasingly coming under suspicion for their ties to co-religionists in Iran and Iraq.

They are also not allowed to live in the 'Riffa' neighbourhood, a residential area reserved for the royal family and Sunnis which is just a stone throw from Sitra, an area where one the poorest Shiite communities live.

In the last few months, public protests have increased with people taking to the streets to stage demonstrations. On March 25, the main Shiite party—Jama 'iyyat al-Wifaq al-Watani al-Islamiyya—defied a government ban and rallied thousands of people in Sitra demanding constitutional reforms.

Given the situation, the government has taken "increasingly aggressive moves", resorting more and more "to police tactics and authoritarian measures to maintain order." (PB)

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