June 10, 2011 / 4:35 PM / in 8 years

Shi'ite cleric warns Bahrain nearing "abyss"

MANAMA (Reuters) - A top Bahraini Shi’ite cleric said trials of dozens of people and the breaking up of Shi’ite religious marches were dragging the country towards destruction, not reconciliation, ahead of a planned national dialogue.

Female anti-government protesters march on the streets of Sanabis in Manama June 3, 2011. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed

State officials have promised the talks, which King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa said would start on July 1, can discuss all types of democratic reforms in the country, rocked by anti-government protests that were quashed by security forces in March.

But Sheikh Issa Qasim, the most revered Shi’ite cleric in Bahrain, told a crowd of hundreds in his Friday sermon that current conditions did not match government rhetoric.

“This country is being brought closer to an abyss of terrifying destruction unless quick reforms are offered to satisfy the people,” he said.

Opposition groups say hundreds of people, most of them Shi’ite, have been put on trial on charges ranging from illegal gatherings and fabricated news to plotting a coup with foreign terrorist organisations. They say over 1,000 people remain in detention. The government says the numbers are much lower.

Bahrain’s Sunni rulers said the democracy protests earlier this year, led mostly by the country’s Shi’ite majority, had a sectarian agenda and help from Iran. The opposition denies this.

Emergency law was lifted last week, and since then small protests have broken out daily in Shi’ite neighbourhoods that are quickly broken up by riot police.

Sheikh Abdul-Aziz bin Mubarak al-Khalifa, Senior International Counselor from the Information Affairs Authority, has encouraged protesters to stop and instead focus on national dialogue. “We hope people will channel their energy in a more positive direction,” he said.

On Friday, Sheikh Issa sounded defiant, saying: “People are supposed to be silent and support the current politics ... The reality on the ground says there is no reform.”

Cheers erupted across the mosque: “The people call for reform, the people call for the release of the prisoners!”

Tensions rose after a raid on Shi’ite religious processions on Sunday. Police broke up the marches and arrested several people for what they said were disturbances and exploitation of religious events for illegal political chants.

Residents said some marches had shouted “Death to al-Khalifa” and “Down with the regime” but insisted others stuck to religious slogans.

“It’s clear that refusing these celebrations is a rejection of Shi’ite existence in this country,” Sheikh Issa said.

Reporting by Erika Solomon, editing by Mark Trevelyan

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