Cleric warns of perilous intra-religious strife in Bahrain

Story highlights

  • A top Shiite cleric claims Bahrain's government is pitting Sunnis versus Shiites
  • The ruling al-Khalifa family is Sunni, while two-thirds of Bahrainis are Shiite
  • Bahraini authorities have defended its actions as needed to protect security
The top Shiite cleric in Bahrain warned Friday that intra-religious tensions could intensify in the already unsettled Arabian nation, accusing the government of trying to fan the flames.
Speaking during his weekly Friday prayer sermon in in the village of Diraz in northwest Bahrain, Ayatollah Sheikh Isa Qassim claimed that the Sunni-led establishment's "winning card" was to rouse strife between members of that branch of Islam and Shiites.
The cleric urged Sunnis and Shiites to work together to stymy such efforts, for the sake of Bahrain.
His comments come as sectarian tensions have spiked anew in recent days, and as the nation's political and security situation remains on edge. Dozens of people accused of fomenting unrest have been put on trial and found guilty.
Shiites -- who make up about two-thirds of Bahrain's population -- have long complained of discrimination by the ruling Sunni elite, led by the al-Khalifa family. They have accused government forces of targeting Shiites as part of efforts to stifle anti-government demonstrations that began brewing earlier this year, as the broader Arab Spring movement took hold around the region.
The demolitions last spring of Shiite mosques and other worship sites by Bahraini authorities also stirred criticism, including from U.S. President Barack Obama. Leaders in Manama later admitted carrying out the demolitions and promised to rebuild the mosques, but so far there has been little evident action toward that end.
Meanwhile, low-level clashes continue between anti- and pro-government backers. Tensions, for instance, were high at the Friday funeral of an elderly man whom opposition forces claim was killed by police.
Relatives of Ali Al Daihi, in his 70s, discovered him covered in his own blood near his home in Daih village, a Manama suburb in which witnesses have reported clashes between its predominantly Shiite residents and police. He died at a hospital Thursday.
The opposition claims that police attacked the man, according to the narrative of his family. But Bahraini authorities' claim that he died of a heart attack, citing a medical report issued through the state-run medical establishment.
Al Daihi is the father of Sheikh Hussain Al Daihi, the vice chairman of Bahrain's leading Shiite opposition grouping Al Wefaq.
Police sealed off roads leading to Daih ahead of the funeral. Thousands turned out for the funeral regardless, several hundred of which tried to march toward to what had been Pearl Roundabout.
That area earlier had been the hub of anti-government activity, before authorities retook and transformed it into a traffic-light intersection. It remains closed-off and heavily guarded by police and National Guard forces, though demonstrators periodically have tried to reclaim it.
Sheikh Hussain Al Daihi, the late elderly man's son, vowed that the opposition would stay the course in pushing for democratic reforms, undeterred by the pain and suffering they've experienced.
And his organization, Al Wefaq, said in a statement issued after the funeral that the issues inside Bahrain would not be resolved until a viable political solution is reached.
Last month, opposition groups issued what they described as a "road map" with their path forward out of the crisis. The nine-page initiative -- dubbed the "Manama Document" -- reasserted earlier calls for open elections and an independent legislature and judiciary.
Opposition groups have denied they are trying to overthrow the regime headed by King Hamad al-Khalifa. In fact, they state that they view some proposals made by Bahrain's crown prince, Salman bin Hamad Al-Khalifa, as viable grounds to start a dialogue.
On March 13 -- at a time of simmering sectarian tensions and frequent clashes between demonstrators and authorities -- Al-Khalifa said in a statement that calls to give parliament more power, review the fairness of voting districts and generally ensure the Bahraini government represents the will of the people were acceptable starting points for talks.
Yet three days later, the situation appeared to take a significant turn when government forces raided Pearl Roundabout for the second time in a month. The government claimed that a failure of talks and fears about a lack of public order were the main reasons for the move, as well as its decision to declare martial law.
The so-called February 14 movement has persisted for months, despite a crackdown by the kingdom's Sunni monarchy, backed by troops from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
More than 30 people have been killed during the demonstrations. Opposition groups say more than 1,000 people -- mainly Shiites -- have been detained and more than 2,000 have lost their jobs for allegedly taking part in the protests.
Bahrain's government has consistently defended its actions, saying they were justified and stressing the need to maintain public security.
The nation's king has set-up the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry to investigate the events -- and consequences -- from earlier this year. Its report is set to be released November 23.
The tiny but strategically critical nation of Bahrain is a key American ally and home to the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet. That said, Obama has been among those openly critical of Bahrain on human rights grounds.