NUWAIDRAT, Bahrain (Reuters) - Two bulldozers and two large trucks are busy removing a large pile of stones, wood and prayer carpets on a large square — all that remains of a small Shi’ite mosque in the Sunni-ruled kingdom of Bahrain.
“Do you see this ? This was a mosque until this week. They destroyed it,” said a Shi’ite man, stopping his car in this poor Shi’ite village outside the capital Manama to point to another heap of masonry, where residents say another mosque once stood.
A religious book lies on top of stones next to a carpet, branches of a palm tree and parts of a gate of a mosque, one of three reduced to rubble next in a residential area.
“It was an old mosque,” said the driver, who like other residents declined to give his name for fear of reprisals.
Last month the royal family in Bahrain, home to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, quelled mainly Shi’ite protests inspired by Arab revolts elsewhere, declaring martial law and calling in troops from Saudi Arabia and other Sunni-ruled Gulf neighbours.
Hundreds of Shi’ites have been detained and others fired from public sector jobs, the opposition says. The government says it targets only people who committed crimes in the unrest.
Now majority Shi’ites say the authorities have begun pulling down their mosques, a policy likely to inflame sectarian tensions further among the island’s 600,000 nationals.
The Justice Ministry acknowledges that what it calls illegally built structures, which it does not refer to as mosques, are being torn down. “The ministry will provide legal alternatives for buildings with a licence for those cabins and facilities being removed,” it said on its website.
A Shi’ite mosque administrator, who gave his name only as Ali, said the religious authorities “didn’t have a clue” when he called them to inquire about the demolitions.
“The next day another mosque was gone here,” he said, drinking tea with other residents in the shade of a house wall.
“Security troops and civil defence personnel came in the night with bulldozers and removed this mosque.”
Faisal Fulad, of the Bahrain Human Rights Watch Society, a Sunni politician close to government thinking, denied the policy was discriminatory. Large or old mosques were not affected.
“These are small mosques, buildings built there without papers,” he said. “If you want to build a church in Germany or England you need to apply for a licence,” he said.
But villagers in Nuweidrat, a decrepit place a half-hour’s drive from Manama but a world away from its fancy hotels and bars, feel the demolitions typify anti-Shi’ite prejudice.
“They destroyed the mosques because we are Shi’ites,” said one man, sitting on the ground with a circle of friends.
Majority Shi’ites have long complained of sectarian discrimination in a country where the hardline Sunni prime minister, the king’s uncle, has held his post for four decades.
“The destroyed mosques all had electricity and were registered with the proper authority,” said a man in his 40s.
The main opposition group Wefaq, which withdrew its 18 deputies in protest against the crackdown, said some 25 Shi’ite mosques had been razed since then.
“Some mosques were 20 or 30 years old, some had an older heritage,” said a Wefaq leader, Sheikh Ali Salman, adding that some might have existed before the government required licences.
Daniel Williams at New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said he was surprised by the government’s sudden interest in mosque licences when it was busy with security issues.
“The government knew about these mosques. They tolerated them for a long time,” Williams said. “The sudden action makes it suspicious. This is not an isolated incident.”
Thursday, Amnesty International said government opponents faced a “relentless and violent crackdown” in Bahrain.
The Shi’ite mosque demolitions are taking place while the government is trying to show that life has returned to normal.
Pro-government media quote officials, businessmen and expatriates thanking security forces for ending the unrest.
The king has ordered compensation for soldiers and security staff wounded in the protests, including housing and other benefits for their families, state media said Friday.
Sunni rights activists acknowledge some violations by security forces that should be investigated, but say the crackdown was needed to stop chaos after radical Shi’ite parties called for the overthrow of the ruling Khalifa family.
“Like in any other country you need to restore stability,” said Fulad. “The radical parties stole the demands of others.”
Moderate Shi’ites also accept that some Sunnis had suffered some Shi’ite violence which should be investigated, but point to what they say is random sectarian mistreatment of Shi’ites.
“Look what they did to me at a checkpoint,” said Abu Ahmed, a Shi’ite driver in his 30s, removing his shirt to show two long bloody cuts on his back. “A soldier asked whether I was Shi’ite and when I said yes he asked me the king’s name. I did so, but did not give his full title so he beat me with a baton.”
“Then he asked me to recite the text of the national anthem but I couldn’t. So he hit me again,” he said, before logging a complaint at Wefaq headquarters, which shares such accounts with human rights groups. “They finally let me go but it was scary.”
Such incidents are hard to verify. The government says all claims of abuse will be investigated. Reuters interviewed eight Shi’ites who said they had been abused at checkpoints or elsewhere by the security forces, which are dominated by Sunnis.
“I heard several accounts of verbal and physical abuses at checkpoints,” said HRW’s Williams. “I find them credible.”
Editing by Alistair Lyon and Jon Hemming