DUBAI (Reuters) - Senior Shi'ite Bahraini clerics criticized the removal of Ashura banners raised to commemorate the anniversary of the death of Prophet Mohammad's grandson, saying the move amounted to an infringement on a tradition dating back hundreds of years.
The complaint highlights concerns by Bahrain's large Shi'ite community over religious freedom in the U.S.-allied Gulf Arab state, which is trying to overcome tensions that began with mass protests for reforms in 2011.
Sunni-ruled Bahrain, home of the U.S. Fifth Fleet, denies accusations by Shi'ites that they face discrimination in seeking jobs and government services.
Bahrain's security chief has said that security forces were trying to protect the ceremonies and at the same time ensure that banners were placed in designated areas.
"The removal of black flags in some areas is regarded as a violation of the mourning ceremonies and infringement against freedom to practice religious rituals which are guaranteed constitutionally," the statement, published on Wednesday, said.
"(These rituals) have been practiced in this country for hundreds of years and no one had dared to stop them or to transgress or infringe on them," it added. Signatories included top Shi'ite cleric Ayatollah Sheikh Isa Qassim, Sheikh Abdullah Al-Ghuraifi and Sayed Jawad Al-Wada'i.
The statement did not say who removed the banners. But residents reported clashes on Tuesday between young men and police who they said were trying to remove the banners from areas in the northern part of the kingdom.
Bahrain's chief of security General Tariq Al-Hassan said police had taken "legal measures against a number of violations in areas of in northern governorates" and confronted groups that had attacked police with fire bombs.
Al-Hassan also said that an individual disguised in women's clothing also fired two shots from a home-made firearm.
Shi'ite Muslims organize wake houses and display black banners of mourning in the days leading to Ashura, the anniversary of the death of Prophet Mohammad's grandson, Imam Hussein in battle in Iraq some 1,400 years ago.
This year's anniversary coincides with increased sectarian divisions between Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims in the region fueled by turmoil in Syria, Yemen and Iraq.
A sense of Shi'ite unease has been compounded by fear over the past 12 months as supporters of the Islamic State militant group have attacked Shi'ite mosques in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Yemen, killing dozens.
(Reporting by Sami Aboudi, Editing by William Maclean and Dominic Evans)