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US 'Alarmed' by Bahrain's Revocation of Top Shi'ite Cleric's Citizenship

FILE- Anti-government protesters hold posters of top Shiite cleric Sheik Isa Qassim to show their support for him, in Karrana, Bahrain, just outside the capital of Manama, May 17, 2013. Bharain stripped the citizenship of Qassim on June 20, 2016.

The U.S. Department of State has expressed "alarm" over Bahrain's decision Monday to strip the citizenship of a leading Shi'ite cleric, a move that sparked new protests and fears of unrest.

"We are alarmed by the Government of Bahrain's decision to revoke the citizenship of prominent Shia cleric, Sheikh Isa Qassim," said State Department spokesman John Kirby in a statement. He said U.S. concerns were "further magnified" by reports that Qassim was not allowed to respond to accusations or challenge the decision through an open legal process.

Bahrain's interior ministry said Qassim, considered the spiritual leader of the country's Shi'ite community, played a key role in creating an extremist sectarian atmosphere. The ministry accused the cleric of abusing his position in order to "serve foreign interests and promote ... sectarianism and violence," the BNA state news agency reported.

Human Rights Watch said Bahrain's decision to revoke Qassim's citizenship "takes Bahrain into the darkest days" since a government crackdown in 2011, when security forces suppressed protesters who demanded a constitutional monarchy and an elected prime minister.

The move against the cleric was favored by Bahrain's Sunni-led allies but condemned by Shi'ites.

Qassim is the latest among scores of Shi'ites who have had their citizenship stripped by Bahraini authorities after being convicted of violence. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights said at least 250 people have been stripped of their Bahraini citizenship in recent years for alleged disloyalty.

Some material for this report came from AP and AFP.

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