MANAMA, Bahrain — In the ancient Bahraini village of Aali, where some graves date to 2000 B.C., the Amir Mohammed Braighi mosque had stood for more than 400 years — one of the handsomest Shiite Muslim mosques in this small island nation in the Persian Gulf. Today, only bulldozer tracks remain.
In Nwaidrat, where antigovernment protests began Feb. 14, the Mo'men mosque had long been a center for the town's Shiite population. Today, only its portico remains.
"Why did they destroy this mosque?" asked a 52-year-old local resident, who asked to be called only "Abu Hadi." "Muslims have prayed there for decades."
In Shiite villages across this island kingdom of 1.2 million, the Sunni Muslim government has bulldozed dozens of mosques as part of a crackdown on Shiite dissidents.
Authorities have held secret trials where protesters have been sentenced to death, arrested prominent mainstream opposition politicians, jailed nurses and doctors who treated injured protesters, seized the health care system that had been run primarily by Shiites, fired 1,000 Shiite professionals and canceled their pensions, detained students and teachers who took part in the protests, beat and arrested journalists, and forced the closure of the only opposition newspaper. Nothing, however, has struck harder at the fabric of this nation, where Shiites outnumber Sunnis nearly 4 to 1, than the destruction of Shiite worship centers.
Bahrain — and its patron, Saudi Arabia — are longtime U.S. allies, and Bahrain hosts the headquarters of the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet. On Wednesday, the State Department told McClatchy Newspapers that it's "concerned by the destruction of religious sites."
Members of the Shiite opposition assembled a list of 27 mosques and other religious structures demolished or damaged in the crackdown. A tour by McClatchy Newspapers of several townships suggests the number of buildings destroyed is far greater.
Bahrain's Minister of Justice and Islamic Affairs Sheikh Khalid bin Ali bin Abdulla al Khalifa defended the demolitions, saying that any mosque demolished had been built illegally, recently and without permission.
That claim is easily challenged. In Aali, for example, the government rerouted a planned highway some years back to preserve the Amir Mohammed Braighi mosque, residents say.
Shiites have long complained of bias and discrimination, despite massively outnumbering the entrenched Khalifa dynasty, whose prime minister, Sheikh Khalifa ibn Salman al Khalifa, 75, has held the office for the past 40 years — a current world record.