DUBAI (AFP) - Bahrain said Monday (June 20) it has revoked the citizenship of the Sunni-ruled kingdom's top Shi'ite cleric, accusing him of sowing sectarian divisions, in a move that sparked protests among the majority community.
Sheikh Isa Qassim, considered the community's spiritual leader, abused his position to "serve foreign interests and promote... sectarianism and violence", the interior ministry said, quoted by the BNA state news agency.
Qassim had been a strong proponent of "absolute allegiance to the clergy," while maintaining continuous contact with "organisations and parties that are enemies of the kingdom", it charged.
There was no immediate indication of Qassim's fate but, in theory, he would be left stateless and could face deportation through a legal process.
The reference to "foreign interests" is widely seen as code for Shi'ite-majority Iran, a traditional foe of both the United States and its Gulf Arab allies, but Washington nonetheless strongly criticised Bahrain's move.
"We remain deeply troubled by the government of Bahrain's practise of withdrawing the nationality of its citizens arbitrarily," said US State Department spokesman John Kirby.
"Our concern is further magnified by reports that Sheikh Qassim was unable to respond to the accusations against him... or challenge the decision through a transparent legal process."
In 2015, authorities stripped 208 Bahrainis of their citizenship, according to the US-based Human Rights Watch. It says at least five people whose nationality had been revoked were deported between February and March alone.
The decision against Qassim follows the suspension of Bahrain's main Shi'ite opposition group, Al-Wefaq, whose political chief Sheikh Ali Salman is serving a nine-year jail term on charges of inciting violence.
The latest move in an escalating crackdown on the opposition triggered fresh tensions and street protests in the cleric's home village of Diraz, west of the capital Manama, witnesses said.
They said police deployed in force and sealed off the village, where thousands of demonstrators waved portraits of their religious leader and chanted slogans against King Hamad.
Home to the US Navy's Fifth Fleet, Bahrain has been shaken by unrest since security forces crushed 2011 protests demanding a constitutional monarchy and an elected prime minister.
Protesters still frequently clash with police in Shi'ite villages outside the capital, with rights groups repeatedly raising concern over the response of the authorities.
Qassim allegedly worked on "controlling elections" by issuing fatwas, or religious edicts, either calling for or against voter participation, the interior ministry said.
It added his interventions "stretched to aspects of public life".
The ministry suggested Qassim was not of Bahraini origin, without specifying when he acquired citizenship, while online sources say he was born in Diraz in the 1940s.
He delivers the sermon at weekly Friday prayers in the mosque of Diraz, regularly criticising the government's crackdown on the opposition.
Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa, addressing the council of ministers, warned "there will be no place for those who incite violations of the law and who threaten the security of the country."
Authorities have revoked by court order the citizenships of scores of Shi'ites convicted of violence.
But unlike in earlier cases, the decision against Qassim was issued by the Gulf state's council of ministers and rather than by a court.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon voiced concern last week over Bahrain's opposition crackdown.
Ban was also "dismayed" by reports rights activists had been intimidated and stripped of their citizenship.
"The current actions against the opposition may undermine the reforms undertaken" and "lessen the prospect of an inclusive national dialogue in the interest of all people of the kingdom", he said.
On June 13, police re-arrested a prominent rights defender, Nabeel Rajab.
On Thursday, a court sentenced eight Shi'ites to 15-year jail terms and stripped them of their citizenship for forming a "terror" group.
In another trial, 13 people were each jailed for 15 years for the attempted murder of policemen. Twenty-two others were imprisoned for three years each in the same case.