MANAMA, Bahrain (AP) — Bahrain's Interior Ministry said Wednesday that the Gulf state has decided to deport a leading Shiite cleric born in the country in a move likely to exacerbate tensions between the government and the Shiite-led opposition.
The cleric being deported, Hussein al-Najati, is the Bahrain representative for Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's most powerful Shiite figure. He is one of the island nation's leading Shiite scholars.
In announcing the move, the ministry said al-Najati "was not transparent and did not communicate" with Bahraini officials about his situation in the country. Employees at his office said he collects and redistributes money in al-Sistani's name, according to the ministry, which said working as an agent to any organization requires official approval.
"As none of the required procedures had been taken, it was decided to deport Najati in accordance with the laws and regulations in Bahrain," the ministry said.
Baharaini activist Baqer Darwish told The Associated Press that he met al-Najati upon his arrival Wednesday in Beirut. Darwish said al-Najati will be in Beirut for the time being.
Opposition groups in Bahrain criticized the decision.
"Deporting al-Najati in this way is against international law, as well as human rights," the main Shiite opposition bloc al-Wefaq said in a statement.
Although he was born in Bahrain, al-Najati has faced challenges to his legal status in the country before.
Passports for al-Najati, his wife and his children were revoked in 2010 because officials at the time said their nationality was not obtained "through the appropriate legal means." Their documents were returned weeks later after their legal status was "corrected."
In its statement Wednesday, the ministry said al-Najati was born in Bahrain in 1960 to Bahraini residents of Iranian nationality, left for a brief time in the 1970s, and then departed again for Iran in 1980.
It is not unusual for aspiring Shiite clerics to spend years studying in Iranian centers of Islamic scholarship.
He returned to Bahrain from Iran in 2001, according to the ministry. His citizenship was ordered to be withdrawn in 2012, the ministry said.
The move threatens to fuel further unrest in the island kingdom, where a largely Shiite opposition has been pushing for greater rights from the country's Sunni rulers.
The government has accused Shiite powerhouse Iran of stoking more than three years of unrest, which has included occasional violent attacks by hard-line anti-government activists.
Bahrain hosts the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet.