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Thousands march in Bahrain after top Shia cleric stripped of citizenship

Bahrain government accuses Isa Ahmed Qassim of promoting 'sectarianism and violence' in Gulf kingdom
Demonstrators gather to protest against stripping of Isa Ahmed Qassim's citizenship in the Bahraini town of Duraz (MEE)

Thousands of Bahrainis have reportedly taken to the streets in protest after the kingdom stripped the country's most prominent Shia cleric of his citizenship.

Protesters on Monday shouted "down with Hamad" - a crime punishable by prison - as they marched outside the home in Duraz of Isa Ahmed Qassim, the spiritual leader of the Shia al-Wefaq political movement.

"Isa Ahmed Qassim has been stripped of his Bahraini citizenship," the Bahrain News Agency reported on Monday, citing the Interior Ministry.

Nedal, a Bahraini activist at the demonstration, told Middle East Eye that thousands had turned out to demonstrate against the stripping of Qassim's citizenship in his home of Duraz.

In photos from the scene, numerous activists can be seen wearing white shawls. According to Nedal, this signifies a willingness to "shed their blood" for Qassim, who was respected as the highest religious authority in Bahrain.

Protests in Bahrain (AFP)

She added that so far the government had not taken action against the demonstration, but said that it was possible they were waiting until the end of the Ramadan fast.

The Bahrain interior ministry said that Qassim had been using his position to "serve foreign interests and promote... sectarianism and violence".

Al-Wefaq, the main opposition group in Bahrain, was itself forcibly dissolved last week.

According to the interior ministry, the Ayatollah had "adopted theocracy and stressed the absolute allegiance to the clergy," adding that he had been in continuous contact with "organisations and parties that are enemies of the kingdom".

Following the arrest, protesters gathered outside Qassim's home to show solidarity.

Many anti-government and pro-democracy activists in Bahrain have been stripped of their citizenship since demonstrations began against the ruling Khalifa monarchy in 2011.

A clip sent to MEE from the scene shows protesters chanting "there is no god but god" outside Qassim's house:

Last week, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said at least 250 people in Bahrain had been stripped of their citizenship for "alleged disloyalty to the interests of the kingdom".

Sayed Ahmed al-Wadaei, director of advocacy at Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD), warned of a backlash following the arrest.

"We are deeply concerned that these actions will escalate tensions on the streets and may even lead to violence, as targeting the country's leading Shia cleric is considered to be a red line for many Bahrainis," he said in a statement.

"Bahrain's allies in Washington and London need to send a strong message to Bahrain, that there will be consequences for the unrelenting increases in their repression."

Bahrain has been in a state of unrest since the Arab Spring demonstrations in 2011, with continuous street protests countered with a heavy crackdown by the state security services.

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