Manama: Bahrain`s Sunni rulers have treated Shiite anti-government protesters seeking greater rights in the Gulf kingdom as "enemies of state," a senior cleric said on Friday, as tensions deepen between the strategic island`s minority Sunnis and majority Shiites.
The comments by Sheik Isa Qassim came as mourners were gathering for the funeral of a 35-year-old man who relatives say died after inhaling tear gas fired at protesters on Tuesday night. Sayyed Jawad Ahmed is to be buried later Friday in Bahrain`s oil hub of Sitra.
The kingdom`s health ministry confirmed the death in a statement Thursday, saying Ahmed died from "acute respiratory syndrome distress."
Shiites make up a majority of Bahrain`s people, but they have long complained of discrimination at the hands of the country`s ruling Sunni dynasty and a lack of economic opportunities.
More than 30 people have died since February when protests started in Bahrain, inspired by other Arab uprisings.
Hundreds of activists have been detained and brought to trial on anti-state charges in a special security court set up after authorities imposed marital law and invited a Saudi-led Gulf military force in the country to help deal with dissent in the tiny island nation.
Bahrain is a strategically important nation in the Persian Gulf and is the home of the US Navy`s 5th Fleet.
The United States has urged Bahrain`s ruling dynasty, a close Washington ally, to listen to the protesters` demands for more political freedoms. However, a government-led national dialogue produced no compromise with the Shiite opposition, which only had token representation at the talks.
"The regime has designated the section of society asking for rights as enemies of state," Sheik Isa said during Friday`s sermon at a mosque in the opposition stronghold of Diraz, northwest of the capital Manama.
Bahrain lifted emergency rule in June. Since then, government opponents have clashed with police almost every night.