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GENEVA (Reuters) - One of the Arab world's best-known human rights activists urged his native Bahrain on Wednesday to look beyond the Sunni-Shi'ite divide to end a political stand-off in the U.S.-allied kingdom.
Nabeel Rajab, the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights founder released last month after two years in jail, said opposition protests there would continue if the government did not treat its citizens equally.
Rajab said the Arab Spring protests had frightened the Arab Gulf states and accused them of using the Sunni-Sunni divide, a religious faultline that has fueled an eruption of violence in Iraq this month, to crack down on dissent.
"No matter where my belief is - Shia, Sunni, Hindu, Jew, Christian - I need to be treated like a citizen," he told journalists in Geneva.
"If the government is willing to treat people equally, I think we could solve half of our problem," he said. "But still the government doesn't want to do that."
Rajab described sectarian tension, a key issue in Bahrain where the ruling Sunni minority put down pro-democracy protests by majority Shi'ites in 2011, as "a field where the Gulf countries are specialized to play in." Rajab was a prominent leader in the 2011 protests.
He accused Gulf states - especially Saudi Arabia and possibly Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates - of using this tension "to distance themselves from any pressure from the international community for a better human rights situation or for democratization."
On Tuesday U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, asked about Iraq, said he had repeatedly urged leaders in countries with security problems to pay more attention to human rights.
"This kind of political instability often leads to a breeding ground of extremism and terrorism to infiltrate into society," Ban said.
Rajab said the United States, which has a base for its Fifth Fleet in Bahrain, and Britain, which he said was selling tear gas and rubber bullets to Bahrain, as the two countries that could most pressure Bahrain to allow more human rights.
But he said both were playing a negative role.
"We have a lot more things in common with Europe than those tribal ruling families who don't believe in anything," he said. "But unfortunately the governments in Europe see their interests as more important than our rights."
Reporting by Tom Miles; Editing by Tom Heneghan