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Bahrain's top Shi'ite cleric allowed to seek treatment abroad

DUBAI (Reuters) - Bahrain’s top Shi’ite Muslim cleric, who has been accused of inciting sectarian strife and has been living virtually confined to his home, has been allowed to travel to London for medical treatment, an opposition figure said on Monday.

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The Gulf island state, where a Sunni Muslim royal family rules over a Shi’ite-majority population, revoked Ayatollah Isa Qassim’s citizenship in 2016.

Demonstrators have clashed frequently with security forces in Bahrain in recent years, and there have been several bomb attacks.

Reports that Qassim’s health was deteriorating have stoked tension as the government pursues a crackdown on Shi’ite dissent in which two major political associations have been dissolved, hundreds of people have had their citizenship revoked, and activists have been put on trial.

“Authorities have given Sheikh Qassim a one-year validity passport and he is now on his way to London,” Ali Alaswad, a former member of parliament for the dissolved al-Wefaq group, told Reuters.

Foreign Minister Khalid Al Khalifa tweeted on Friday that King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa had ordered the government to facilitate Qassim’s travel and pay for his treatment.

Bahraini officials did not immediately confirm Qassim’s departure.

Doctors who visited Qassim at his home in the village of Duraz outside the capital Manama have said he is suffering from a groin hernia “requiring emergency operation”, according to the London-based Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD).

Since Qassim’s citizenship was revoked, he has remained in his house as protesters camp outside with the intention of preventing any deportation attempt by the government.

(This version of the story removes reference in headline to cleric being detained; amends lead to say he has been virtually confined to his home, instead of ‘living under virtual house arrest’; adds final paragraph explaining nature of confinement)

Reporting By Aziz El Yaakoubi; Editing by Kevin Liffey