September 23, 2010 / 3:33 PM / in 10 years

Kuwait cleric comments raise fear of sectarian tension

KUWAIT, Sept 23 (Reuters) -Kuwait this week stripped the citizenship of a Shi’ite cleric accused of insulting Sunni Islam in a case that has highlighted growing sectarian tension in the Gulf Arab oil exporter.

The government banned public gatherings this month fearing that Yasser al-Habib’s reported comments about Aisha, a wife of Prophet Mohammad revered by Sunnis, could lead to clashes. His comments, made in London, were carried on his website which has been blocked in Kuwait.

Underlying tensions between Sunnis and Shi’ites in Muslim countries are often ignited by such issues concerning figures from early Islam.

“If a crazed Sunni puts a screwdriver in the back of a Shi’ite cleric or vice versa, Kuwait is ready to flare up,” said columnist Fouad al-Hashem of daily paper al-Watan.

Tensions have risen in the predominantly Sunni Muslim Gulf region since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 brought Iraqi Shi’ites to power.

Shi’ite Iraq has drawn closer to non-Arab, Shi’ite power Iran, whose nuclear energy programme has worried Western governments and their Gulf Arab allies that Iran is set to become a nuclear weapons state.

Many Gulf states have Shi’ite minorities, some with family ties to Iran. Around 30 percent of the 1.1 million Kuwaitis are thought to be Shi’ite while the island state of Bahrain has a Shi’ite majority.

Bahrain this month accused more than 20 Shi’ite opposition leaders arrested in a broad crackdown of plotting to overthrow the Sunni monarchy following months of violent street protests.

Tensions rose in Kuwait in 2008 when some Shi’ites including lawmakers held a ceremony to eulogise Imad Moughniyeh, a senior security chief in Lebanon’s Hezbollah who was assassinated in Damascus.

Sunnis felt the move was an insult to Kuwaitis because of suspicions of Moughniyeh’s role in the hijacking of a Kuwait Airways flight in 1988 in which two people were killed.

Habib fled Kuwait in 2004 after he was mistakenly released from prison where he was serving a sentence for insulting companions of Prophet Mohammad.

Some Kuwaitis said revoking Habib’s nationality was a dangerous precedent for civil rights in Kuwait, which has a more vibrant political culture than most of its Gulf Arab neighbours.

“Some are afraid that in the future anyone who speaks up will have his nationality taken away,” said Ahmad Ismail, a retired Shi’ite civil servant. “They should have brought him home and put him on trial without withdrawing his citizenship.”

Some Sunni Muslim lawmakers, however, say the government’s response was not enough. They welcomed the withdrawal of Habib’s passport but demanded an investigation into how he managed to leave the country and who was financing his activities.

Reporting by Diana Elias; editing by Andrew Hammond and Samia Nakhoul

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