NUWAIDRAT, Bahrain (AP) – Volunteers slowly rebuilding a new mosque from the wreckage of its 950-year-old predecessor in Bahrain have two tasks: One group works while others watch for a return of security forces who drove bulldozers through its walls last year.
In Bahrain’s fractured society _ with 16 months of nonstop clashes and tensions between the Sunni monarchy and protesters from the kingdom’s Shiite majority _ even relaying bricks from a toppled mosque wall can be viewed as a politically charged act.
“I was born here and will die on this land,” said Mohammed Jaffer, a 17-year-old student who was among the ad hoc crews this week working at the Imam Hadi Mosque in the central Bahraini town of Nuwaidrat. “We deserve to fight for our dignity and not live as a slave in a feudal state.”
The demolition of dozens of Shiite mosques and other religious gathering places remains one of the most sensitive issues amid an array of grievances by Bahrain’s Shiites, who claim they are relegated to second-class status by the Western-backed Sunni dynasty. Their current uprising, which began in February 2011 and was inspired by the Arab Spring, has hardened into a showdown over the legitimacy of the ruling system that has left the island nation deeply divided.
The latest blow came Thursday with a court sentencing nine doctors and nurses to prison for up to five years after being convicted in a retrial of aiding the protests. Fifteen-year sentences also were upheld on two doctors who fled Bahrain.
Michael Posner, assistant U.S. secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, told reporters in Bahrain’s capital Manama that Washington was “deeply disappointed” by the convictions and urged all sides to find ways to open dialogue or risk even more unrest in the strategic nation, which is home to the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet.
“Dialogue has never been more urgent, as polarization in Bahrain society increases and the social fabric becomes more frayed,” he said.
On Friday, Bahrain’s police chief, Maj. Gen. Tariq al-Hassan, said “highly explosive” bomb-making material was uncovered in raids on several locations. Several bombings in the past month have injured security forces.
Bahrain’s leaders have offered a range of concessions, including giving more powers to the elected parliament, but Shiite groups say it falls short of demands for the monarchy to give up its near total control of government power and appointments.
The ruined Shiite mosques across Bahrain also symbolize some of the core perceptions that make Bahrain one of the most diplomatically complex Middle East flashpoints for the West.
Bahrain’s leadership claims that Shiite power Iran is encouraging the challenges to its authority. Also on Bahrain’s side are all the Gulf Arab states led by Saudi Arabia, which sent in troops to aid the Bahraini monarchy last year and now backs a proposals for even closer union.
Although there is no direct evidence of Iranian involvement in Bahrain, it’s a potential threat that resonates deeply with the West. The U.S. and allies also are cautious not to unsettle their critical relations in the Gulf by pushing too hard over Bahrain, where more than 50 people have died in the unrest.
Meanwhile, Bahrain’s Shiites _ accounting for about 70 percent of the more than half-million citizens _ are increasingly critical of the U.S. for what they see as abandoning their cause to preserve important ties with Gulf rulers. The razed mosques have become a political backdrop with groups sometimes holding Friday prayers in the rubble.
Shiite clerics claim at least 38 mosques and affiliated sites, such as charity offices, have been destroyed as part of crackdowns by the government. Officials say the mosques lacked proper permits. Some activists place the number of destroyed mosques at 55 or higher.
Bahrain has pledged to rebuild as least 12 Shiite mosques, but widespread work has not yet begun.
Instead, volunteer groups have started their own reconstruction in defiance of the government selections on which mosques can be restored.
In Niwidrat, about 10 kilometers (six miles) south of Manama, work has begun on some of 10 mosques and Shiite religious sites leveled in a “matter of hours” on April, 10, 2011, according to an independent report on Bahrain’s upheavals issued in November. It noted that the destructions gave “the impression of collective punishment.”
Bahraini activist raised the question of destroyed mosques last month in Geneva at a review of the country the U.N. Human Rights Council.
“It was a sinful thing,” said Ali Abdul Khaliq, 38, as he toted bricks at the Imam Hadi site. “It was against human values of freedom and faith.”
Nearly 30 people _ ranging from a 10-year-old boy to a 70-year old grandfather _ joined the work that evening in the one-time agricultural lands dotted by date palms. When water supplied dried up in the 1930s, most people migrated to nearby areas but left a cluster of ancient mosques that visited for Friday prayers and religious ceremonies.
One of the mosques has been fully repaired, but authorities have refused to reconnect it to the electricity grid and local residents have hooked it to a generator.
They also claim that they have the indirect support of some Sunnis _ countering government assertions that Shiites who support the protests are trying to widen the sectarian rifts.
Ali Hussain, a 69-year-old retired Shiite teacher, said Sunnis have donated cash for the mosque rebuilding as well as furniture and Qurans. “It is a completely united effort and a message not to harm the houses of God,” he said.
A 10-year boy in a wheelchair because of a car accident distributed water. “This is for the sake of God,” he said.
Last week, some of the volunteers received police notices to stop the work, they said. Also last week a firebomb was thrown into a Shiite mosque outside Manama, causing minor damage to a carpet. But in March, vandals ransacked a historic Shiite mosque in a predominantly Sunni area about 12 miles (20 kilometers) south of Manama.
At a 450-year-old Shiite mosque on land now owned by Bahrain’s ruling family, police removed banners with the mosque’s name, Amir Barbaghi. Someone later spray-painted graffiti on its wall: Long live the king.
Government officials did not immediately respond to requests for details about the purported police warnings.
“We are sending a message,” said retired teacher Ali Ibrahim, 67. “That message is that we won’t stop rebuilding our destroyed mosques no matter what.”
Murphy reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.