MANAMA, Bahrain (AP) — Bahrain's most senior Shiite cleric warned the Gulf kingdom's rulers Friday to either ease their grip on power or risk joining Libya's Moammar Gadhafi and other Arab leaders swept aside by uprisings.
The sermon by Sheik Isa Qassim was attended by thousands of worshippers, and was a show of defiance after Bahrain's justice minister accused the cleric of promoting unrest in the strategic island nation, which is home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet.
A police helicopter hovered low over the crowds spilling from the mosque after the service. Some worshippers unfurled banners saying "We will never submit to anyone but God" and warning that government pressure on Qassim is "political suicide."
Qassim vowed he would never be silenced, and said it was his religious duty to support demands by Bahrain's majority Shiites for greater rights and a stronger voice in how the country is run.
Bahrain's ruling Sunni dynasty, which has conducted sweeping crackdowns on protests since February, opened reconciliation talks in July to examine possible political changes. But the moves have not gone far enough for Shiite-led demonstrators seeking to break the Sunni rulers' monopoly on picking government officials and setting policies.
"Can't they learn from the fall of dictatorships and see what happens to those who denied their people basic rights?" Qassim told worshippers. "We now see what happens to the Libyan dictator, just as what happened to Tunisian and Egyptian despots."
Shiites comprise about 70 percent of Bahrain's population, but complain of systematic discrimination including being blocked from top political or security posts. Earlier this week, Justice Minister Khaled bin Ali Al Khalifa sent a letter to Qassim, accusing him of using his mosque for "intervening in politics and promoting violence."
At least 32 people have been killed since protests began in February, inspired by other Arab uprisings. A panel of international investigators is looking into claims of abuses and is expected to issue its report Oct. 30.
"There is no exit to the crisis except through political reform," said Qassim. "To run away from this fact will not solve anything and to delay reforms will only deepen the crisis."
The U.S. and other Western leaders have urged Bahrain's monarchy to open political dialogue with the opposition, but have held off on any further pressure that could undermine their military partnerships. Gulf Arab nations, including key ally Saudi Arabia, also claim that Shiite powerhouse Iran could gain new footholds in the region if Bahrain's Shiites gain more political clout.
Last week, Qassim lashed out at Arab neighbors for backing Libyan rebels and other revolts in the region while standing by Bahrain's rulers.