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Saudi Authorities Arrest Shi'ite Leaders in Eastern Province

Saudi Arabia reportedly has arrested several Shi'ite community leaders in the heavily Shi'ite Eastern province for holding worship services in their homes. Shi'ites have long complained about systematic discrimination in Saudi Arabia, where they make up more than 10 percent of the population.

According to news reports, several well-known Shi'ite community and religious leaders in Saudi Arabia's Eastern province have been arrested in recent days. Shi'ite sources in the region say they are serving one-month prison sentences.

Saudi authorities reportedly charged the men with conducting Shi'ite religious services in their homes during the religious festival of Ashoura, last December. Holding religious services in a private setting is not permitted in the strict Wahabite-Islamic Saudi kingdom.

The Internet Web site for the Shi'ite Jafariya news service reports that Saudi police have closed down nine Shi'ite mosques in the cities of Khobar, Ras Tanura, Kharfji and Abqaiq.

Human rights groups say that the conflict over Shi'ite houses of worship has been going on for more than a year and that Saudi authorities have refused to grant permits to build Shi'ite mosques, despite repeated requests by the large Shi'ite community in the eastern city of Khobar.

Assem Qanso, a member of Lebanon's parliament who is also a Shi'ite, says that Shi'ites in Saudi Arabia are at a disadvantage.

He says that historically, Shi'ites in Khobar and neighboring regions do not have the same rights as Sunnis. He notes that Shi'ites cannot join the army, the police, or the security forces, and that they cannot fill top government posts. Qanso adds that Saudi Arabia's National Guard and the military academy are closed to Shi'ites.

Political scientist Khattar Abou Diab of the University of Paris, says the Saudi government has been trying to improve the situation of Shi'ites in the kingdom since King Abdallah bin Abd al-Aziz came to power, but that little progress has been made.

Diab says that there is a large community of Shi'ites, as well as Ismaelis in Saudi Arabia's Eastern province and that interreligious dialogue began in 2005. But he says few new rights have been granted to Shi'ites.

Diab says that much of the tension over Saudi Arabia's Shi'ite policy stems from the 1979 Iranian Revolution and attempts by Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to export revolution to other Persian Gulf States, including Saudi Arabia.

He says that the bad feelings between the Saudi government and the Shi'ite community that developed during the 1980s diminished after the Persian Gulf War in 1991. But more recently, he notes that there has been an increase in Shi'ite activism linked to Iran, not only in Saudi Arabia, but also in Yemen, Bahrain, Kuwait and other Gulf states.

Diab says that although many Saudi Shi'ites are liberal, others are more traditional, with ties to Iraq's Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. A third group, he says, sympathizes with Iran's hardliners.

Although Sunni-Shi'ite tensions in Saudi Arabia have a political component, Abou Diab says sectarian strife also arises due to Saudi Arabia's strict interpretation of Islam, and the Wahabi sect that dominates religious affairs in the kingdom.

Diab says that often there are disputes over Shi'ite houses of worship. He says the central government has tried to smooth over the quarrels and give Shi'ites more possibilities to join the civil service, even if equality between Sunnis and Shi'ites might be decades away.