JEDDAH // The Saudi government has moved to quell heightened tensions with the kingdom's Shiite minority after unrest broke out last month between Shiite worshippers and members of the Vice and Virtue police in the holy city of Medina. The interior minister yesterday blamed the incident, in which numerous Shiite leaders and community members were arrested, on unnamed "foreign bodies" seeking to sow division.
The unrest, which began on Feb 20 after clashes between Shiite pilgrims visiting the Al Bagie cemetery and Saudi security, struck at the core of sectarian relations in the Sunni-dominated Kingdom, where Shiites, who comprise about 10 per cent of the population, complain of discrimination. Shiite protesters in Medina and Al Qatif in the Eastern province held demonstrations for two weeks after the arrests, shouting anti-government slogans and demanding greater freedom to the Shiite minority in the kingdom.
After a visit by prominent members of the Shiite community, King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz last week ordered that protesters arrested during the unrest be released on bail. The Saudi minister of the interior, Prince Naif bin Abdul Aziz, had already released Shiite juveniles involved in the clashes. The pardons have done much to cool tempers and bring about calm, leaders on both sides said. "King Abdullah's pardon had a great impact on the way Shiites look at the king and the interfaith dialogue he is promoting," said Hejji al Nujaidi, a Shiite member of the municipal council of Al Hassa province, who was among a group of 37 Shiites, including a prominent Shiite cleric, Sheikh Hassan al Saffar, who visited the king on March 4.
Prince Naif said in an interview published yesterday in Okaz, a Saudi daily newspaper, that "foreign bodies" deliberately escalated the incident at Al Bagie to hurt the image of Saudi Arabia. "We are capable of stopping all this," Prince Naif said in the interview. The tensions have risen at a critical time for the Saudi government. Relations between the Gulf States and Iran are on edge over such issues as the Islamic republic's presumed nuclear ambitions and conflicting approaches to Israeli-Palestinian peace. Some in Saudi Arabia accuse the country's Shiites of being loyal to Iran, a notion the community strongly rejects.
Prince Naif did not elaborate on the reasons behind the unrest but said protesters were arrested because their actions constituted religious offences against Saudi Arabia's doctrine. "What happened involved offending the companions and the family of the Prophet through desecrating graves and removing soil, which is unacceptable," he said. Al Bagie cemetery, situated across from the Prophet's Mosque, is the burial home of numerous figures revered in Islam, including the Prophet's companions, his wives and the second, fourth, fifth and sixth Shiite imams, who are direct descendants of the Prophet.
Shiites say the violence in Medina broke out after a member of the religious police was recorded videotaping Shiite women practising rituals. Video clips showing the policemen in action were uploaded onto YouTube. Saudi religious police often seek to prevent pilgrims from venerating tombs, a practice considered almost idolatrous under the country's Wahhabi version of Islam, and a point of contention for Shiites.
Hundreds of demonstrators gathered in front of the cemetery for three days, protesting at what they called a humiliating violation of the worshippers' privacy and dignity and demanding action be taken against the religious police. "There was a flagrant aggression on women's rights and the Shiite visitors. It was a premeditated action by extremist men who want to put an end to visits by Shiite visitors," Sheikh Hussein al Mustapha, a prominent Shiite cleric told the Associated Press at the time said.
The clashes in Medina occurred one week after the King appointed a new head of the religious police in an effort to reform and moderate the apparatus, colloquially known as the Vice and Virtue Police. Prince Naif denied any discrimination against Shiites in the arrests, noting that at least as many Sunnis were arrested in the Al Bagie incident as Shiites. An official report issued by the Medina police on Feb 20 said that a group of Shiite pilgrims had gathered in front of the cemetery seeking entry after visiting hours had ended and, when refused entry, began protesting in front of the cemetery until police arrested five of the demonstrators.
Madawy al Rasheed, a London-based Saudi dissident, said in an interview with BBC Arabic that the government could not deny the responsibility of the religious police, of which the clips on YouTube provided proof. But Khalil al Khalil, a former member of the Saudi Shura Council, said there was no law against filming people in public and said the demonstrators were responsible for the violence. King Abdullah has made numerous overtures to the Shiite community since he took the throne in 2005. Most recently he decreed an increase in the number of Shiite members on the Shura Council to five from two, as part of a major government reshuffle.