One of Bahrain’s top Shia clerics is the latest of at least 250 people to have their Bahraini nationality revoked in the past two years.
The decision was taken in response to a request filed by Bahrain’s interior ministry who had accused Sheikh Isa Qassim of creating an “extremist sectarian environment” and encouraging “sectarianism and violence.”
The interior ministry’s statement said that Sheikh Isa Qassim had damaged Bahrain’s national interests by endorsing “the theory of theocracy” and using his sermons to serve foreign interests, seemingly referring to Shia-led Iran.
Sheikh Isa Qassim is the spiritual leader of Al-Wefaq, Bahrain’s largest Shia opposition group. The decision to revoke his nationality comes a week after Al-Wefaq group was suspended and its secretary general sentenced to nine years in prison.
Hundreds of Sheikh Isa Qassim’s supporters gathered outside his house in the small village of Diraz to protest the government’s decision.
Sunni-Shia relations in Bahrain have mostly deteriorated since 2011 when the country’s majority Shia population orchestrated an uprising against the Sunni-led monarchy to demand greater rights and to end discrimination against Shias. The government was able to crush the protests with assistance from its Sunni Arab Gulf allies but the sectarian clash continues to create domestic tensions.
The director of advocacy at the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy said in a statement that the decision to revoke Sheikh Isa Qassim’s nationality will intensify hostilities and may even lead to violence.
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) condemned the kingdom’s controversial decision and declared it a breach of international law.
“Given that due process was not followed, it cannot be justified,” Ravina Shamdasani, the spokesperson for OHCHR, told a UN briefing in Geneva.
“We are very concerned at this intensified crackdown on the freedoms of expression and association and the right to a nationality. We urge the Bahraini authorities to seek to de-escalate the situation – instead of taking such damaging steps in quick succession with a serious risk of escalating the situation.”
A spokesperson from the US Department of State also expressed their alarm by Bahrain’s decision to revoke Sheikh Isa Qassim’s nationality.
“We remain deeply troubled by the government of Bahrain’s practice of withdrawing the nationality of its citizens arbitrarily,” said John Kirby on Monday.
Bahrain is a close ally of the United States and hosts the US Fifth Fleet.