09/21/2010, 00.00
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Sunni authorities in Manama revoke nationality of Shiite ayatollah

The decision is linked to a series of measures against the Shiites, who are the majority of citizens. Measures against another cleric and arrests among those who participated in protests against discrimination. Government concern over increasing power of the Shiites in the region.

Manama (AsiaNews / Agencies) - The government of Bahrain has withdraw the passport of one of the most influential Shiite leaders, Ayatollah Hussein al-Najati (left in photo), who is also the representative of the Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, highest Shiite religious authority in Iraq, in the small kingdom. The decision to revoke the nationalities of both al-Najati and his family, apparently for bureaucratic reasons, falls within a range of measures that the authorities (Sunni) are taking against the majority Shiite community, in the lead up to parliamentary elections, scheduled for October 23.

On Sunday, just hours before the announcement of the decision against al-Najati, another penalty against a Shiite cleric, Sheik Abdul Jaleel Al-Miqdad, was unveiled.  He has been banned for two weeks, from leading Friday prayers. The measures appear as a reaction to demonstrations and Al-Miqdad protests in August over the arrests of more than 250 Shiites.  While a further 23 activists have been accused of plotting to topple the government and destabilizing the country. On Sunday there were four more arrests related to the protests. As for al-Najati, whose role in the demonstrations has not been clarified, he recently signed an appeal of the major Shiite religious leaders for an end to street protests, the release of prisoners and the opening of a dialogue between government and opposition.

The Shiites, who account for 70% of 530 thousand citizens of the small state, have long complained of being discriminated against by the Sunni monarchy and its government. They argue that the constituencies for the parliament were designed to ensure a majority for the Sunnis, that Sunnis from other states have been naturalized and recruited in the army and police (about 60 thousand men), while the civil service is full of Sunnis, especially in the areas of defence and interior and in senior roles, that the Sunnis are favoured in the allocation of houses as well as in government intervention.

The authorities in Bahrain feel threatened: last week, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa asked the government to "fight terrorism". The underlying concern is related to the increasing importance that the Shiites are gaining in Iraq in general and the increased Iranian influence. Last year there were moments of tension in relations between Manama and, following a declaration by Ali Akbar Nateq Noori, an advisor to the Supreme Guide Ali Khamenei, according to whom Bahrain is the 14th province of Iran. Similar statements were made just days before by a deputy, Daryush Qanbari.  

The behaviour of the government of the small kingdom is closely followed by both Sunni authorities of other countries in the area, as well as Shiite, but so far there has been no comment from Tehran or al-Sistani.

Rather than by religious conflict, then, Bahrain’s actions are for political reasons. The kingdom enjoys a discrete religious freedom - Christians, especially foreign workers, are 10% of the population – it has diplomatic relations with the Vatican, it is the first Gulf state to have allowed the construction of a Catholic place of worship and year Last King Hamad donated land for the construction of a second, responding to a request by Benedict XVI.

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