The Shia cleric whose death ended Saudi, Iranian ties
(MENAFN- The Journal Of Turkish Weekly) Shia cleric Nimr Baqir al-Nimr whose execution last week by the Saudi authorities has since ruptured Saudi-Iranian diplomatic relations was a towering figure who enjoyed considerable influence among Shia communities across the region.
Al-Nimr was born in 1959 in Saudi Arabia’s Al-Awamiyah district which is located in the oil-rich Qatif region of the kingdom’s predominantly-Shia Eastern Province.
Saudi Arabia’s current population stands at nearly 30 million of which between 10 and 15 percent are estimated to be Shia most of whom live in Qatif.
Following Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution al-Nimr went to the newly-proclaimed Islamic republic before going on to Syria to complete his religious education.
In 1994 he returned to Al-Awamiyah where he began his preaching activities.
Al-Nimr came to have considerable influence on local youth to whom he conveyed his political opinions in his weekly Friday sermons.
In time the charismatic preacher became a kind of spiritual leader to Saudi Arabia’s Shia-Muslim minority and to Shia communities elsewhere in the region.
Due to his criticisms of the Saudi ruling dynasty and his growing influence on the country’s Shia population the Saudi regime came to view him as a threat.
Al-Nimr was repeatedly arrested by the Saudi authorities after leading anti-government protests and "provoking unrest".
In 2006 he was detained after calling for free and fair elections in the kingdom.
After allegations that he had been tortured while in police custody al-Nimr’s followers staged demonstrations that eventually prompted the Saudi authorities to release him.
In 2009 a Shia pilgrimage to the city of Medina led to clashes between pilgrims and Saudi security forces.
The clashes which went on for five days and which led to the arrest of dozens of Shia pilgrims triggered Shia riots in the predominantly-Shia Eastern Province.
The ongoing clashes and riots prompted al-Nimr to openly call for the secession of the country’s Shia-majority east from the rest of the kingdom.
"If our dignity is not restored we will call for secession" the preacher had declared at the time. "Our dignity is more precious than the unity of this land."
Following the eruption of the 2011 "Arab Spring" uprisings al-Nimr stepped up his criticisms of the Saudi regime.
In one sermon he described Saudi intervention against anti-government demonstrations in Bahrain -- led by that country’s Shia majority -- in particularly harsh terms.
Al-Nimr went on to say he was ready to die in defense of the Bahraini demonstrators and refuted Saudi claims that Iran was inciting the protests.
"Saudi Arabia says ‘We will respond to the Bahrain riots with an iron fist’" he asserted.
"Go use this ‘iron fist’ on this foreign country [Iran]" he added. "Why are you fighting these 40 or 50 people [Bahraini demonstrators]?"
"Go fight Iran" he dared the Saudi government. "Let’s see your ‘iron fist’."
In July 2012 the Saudi authorities arrested al-Nimr for "incitement".
Reports that Saudi police had shot al-Nimr in the leg -- during what the authorities described as "an exchange of gunfire" -- prompted a fresh round of Shia rioting in the kingdom.
Al-Nimr was later found guilty of supporting "foreign meddling" in the kingdom "disobeying" its rulers and "taking up arms" against the Saudi security forces.
After a lengthy trial al-Nimr was finally condemned to death on Oct. 5 of this year in a move that drew outrage from Shia communities across the region.
While Tehran described the death sentence handed down against al-Nimr as an "anti-Shia" act the cleric himself was never blindly pro-Iranian nor did he hesitate to criticize Iran’s Syria policy.
In one of his later sermons al-Nimr had said -- in reference to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad a close ally of Iran -- that "all tyrants must be opposed without discrimination".
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