Bahrain has stripped the Sunni-ruled kingdom’s most prominent Shia cleric of his citizenship, state media report.
An interior ministry statement accused Sheikh Isa Qassim of using his position to “serve foreign interests” and promote “sectarianism and violence”.
The cleric, who holds the religious rank of ayatollah, has backed protests led by the majority Shia community for greater civil and political rights.
Last week, the government suspended the leading Shia opposition grouping.
Bahraini authorities said the offices of the Wefaq National Islamic Society had also been closed and its assets frozen. A lawyer for the group said the move had come “out of the blue”.
Wefaq’s political leader, Shia cleric Sheikh Ali Salman, is in prison and recently had his jail term increased to nine years, after being convicted in 2015 of inciting hatred and disobedience, and insulting public institutions.
A US diplomatic cable published by Wikileaks described Sheikh Isa Qassim as Wefaq’s spiritual leader. He is also regarded as spiritual leader of Bahrain’s wider Shia community.
The US cable said the cleric had studied in the Iranian city of Qom in the 1990s and also spent time in the Iraqi city of Najaf, another centre of Shia learning.
Announcing the move to strip him of his Bahraini citizenship, the interior ministry said the cleric had “adopted theocracy and stressed the absolute allegiance to the clergy”.
It added that he had been in continuous contact with “organisations and parties that are enemies of the kingdom”.
Hussein Abdulla, executive director of campaign group Americans for Human Rights and Democracy in Bahrain, called the move “an unprecedented low for the Bahraini authorities”.
British-based campaign group, the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy, said it was concerned the action would “escalate tensions on the streets and may even lead to violence”.
In February 2011, demonstrators took to the streets to demand greater political rights and an end to discrimination against the Shia majority.
The following month, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa brought in troops from neighbouring Sunni-led Gulf states to restore order and crush dissent. The unrest left at least 30 civilians and five policemen dead.
Opposition activists say dozens of people have been killed in ongoing clashes between protesters and security forces, while bomb attacks blamed on Iran-backed militants have left a number of police officers dead.