Hundreds of Bahraini protesters kept up their rally Thursday outside the home of a Shiite cleric, a day after they chanted a promise to “give our soul and blood as a sacrifice” to protect him following the government’s move that revoked his citizenship this week.
The demonstration in support of Sheikh Isa Qassim shows the unrest gripping the tiny island of Bahrain, sparked by an intense government’s crackdown on opposition groups and dissent, on a level unseen since its 2011 Arab Spring protest.
But while the protests five years ago saw the island’s Shiite majority and others rise up to demand more political freedom from its Sunni rulers, this crackdown has seen a growing level of sectarianism. A top general in Iran has threatened the “destruction of the bloodthirsty regime” in Manama while anti-Shiite messages have spread around social media.
“The country now has been divided and you have to say the government bears a lot of responsibility,” said Brian Dooley, the director of the Washington-based group Human Rights First. “The targeting of the theological side of things, I think, is particularly worrying.”
The government in Bahrain, which is home to the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet, crushed the Arab Spring protests with the help of troops from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Since then, the island has seen low-level unrest, protests and attacks on police.
On Tuesday, authorities stripped Sheikh Isa of his citizenship, accusing him of creating an extremist sectarian atmosphere and forming groups that “follow foreign religious ideologies and political entities,” an apparent reference to Shiite-majority Iran. His supporters and activists deny the allegations.
His case is the latest in a string of incidents since Bahrain’s Defense Force announced in April it was “ready to deal firmly and with determination with these sedition groups and their heads” after a gasoline bomb killed a police officer.
Since then, Bahrain has:
—Suspended the country’s largest Shiite opposition group, Al-Wefaq, in a surprise court hearing;
—More than doubled a prison sentence for Al-Wefaq’s secretary-general, Sheikh Ali Salman;
—Barred activists from attending a U.N. human rights event as the country’s foreign minister mocked the U.N. rights chief as “powerless” in a Twitter post;
—Detained Nabeel Rajab, a prominent activist and the president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, on a charge of spreading “false news;” and
—Forced well-known activist Zainab al-Khawaja to flee to Denmark.
It’s unclear what sparked the crackdown.
Bahrain’s Ministry of Information Affairs did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.
In a statement last week, Information Minister Ali bin Mohammed al-Rumaihi said Bahrain “has always been and will remain the oasis of tolerance, democracy, tolerance and peaceful co-existence,” while promising that the country “will remain invincible to terrorists, saboteurs and foreign interferences.”
The crackdown comes as tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran remain at a fever-pitch after the Sunni-ruled kingdom executed a prominent Shiite cleric in January. Saudi Arabia cut diplomatic ties with Tehran after Iranian protesters, angered by the cleric’s execution, attacked two of the kingdom’s diplomatic posts.
Bahrain, just off Saudi Arabia’s coast, also faces increasing economic pressure as its oil-dependent economy has suffered from depressed global crude prices. That’s likely made it more dependent on support from Saudi Arabia, which has long viewed Bahrain as being under its sphere of influence.
Also, unlike in 2011, this time around Bahrain appears unconcerned about international repercussions of its actions, said Sayed AlWadaei, the director of advocacy at the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy. The focus on Shiite groups also is particularly worrying, he said.
“The target of the spiritual leader of Bahrain’s Shiite is a new extreme, which they knew would flare regional and local tensions,” AlWadaei said.
Late Thursday, the state-run Bahrain News Agency reported that officials were trying to speed up the dissolution of Al-Wefaq, the Shiite opposition group. Meanwhile, Bahraini authorities detained six Shiite clerics under unclear circumstances, AlWadaei said.
The case of the Sheikh Isa has gotten the attention of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who heads the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s elite Quds Force, which focuses on foreign operations. On Tuesday, Soleimani warned Bahrain had crossed a “red line” by targeting the cleric.
“This arrogance will leave no choice for the people of Bahrain other than armed resistance,” Soleimani said in a statement carried by Iran’s semi-official Fars news agency. Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa “will pay the cost. The result will be nothing other than destruction of the bloodthirsty regime.”
For the time being, however, Bahrain has yet to move against those demonstrating outside of Sheikh Isa’s home in the Bahraini town of Diraz. Police have set up checkpoints and surrounded the area, stopping some from entering.
Later Thursday, the U.S. Embassy in Manama warned Americans about the demonstrations and police presence in Diraz, as well as of “nightly clashes” in other Shiite areas.
Many in the island kingdom worry a raid may be coming to seize Sheikh Isa.
“Things haven’t been as suffocating as it is now,” Dooley said. “The U.S. needs to decide whether it wants to do more than just talk about it.”