A top Iranian official has warned that a death sentence passed on a prominent Shia cleric in Saudi Arabia could escalate tensions and called for the decision be reversed.
Nimr al-Nimr, a driving force behind demonstrations against the Sunni authorities that erupted in Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich east in 2011, was convicted of sedition, according to his brother.
Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said Nimr al-Nimr’s conviction for sedition, if confirmed, would likely sow discord.
“If the news that a Saudi court sentenced Sheikh Nimr to death is true, it will undoubtedly hurt Muslims’ feelings and provoke international reaction,” he was quoted as saying by Mehr news agency.
“Such measures do not contribute to the restoration of peace and calm in the region.”
Nimr was also convicted of seeking “foreign meddling” in the country, a reference to Iran, and of “disobeying” the kingdom’s rulers and taking up arms against security forces, his brother Mohammed al-Nimr wrote on Twitter.
Abdollahian urged that the sentence on Nimr, who is in his 50s and had been on trial since March 2013, be overturned.
“It is expected that Saudi officials will take a realistic approach to prevent the carrying out of this sentence, and of an escalation of tensions in the Islamic world,” he told Mehr.
Most of Saudi Arabia’s estimated two million Shias live in the east, where the vast majority of the wealthy kingdom’s oil reserves lie, and many complain of marginalisation.
They began demonstrating in February 2011 after an outbreak of violence between Shia pilgrims and religious police in the Muslim holy city of Medina in western Saudi Arabia.
Protests escalated after the kingdom’s intervention in neighbouring Bahrain to support a Sunni monarchy against an uprising led by that country’s Shia majority.
Regional powers Iran and Saudi Arabia have been at odds since unrest broke out in Syria in 2011, but they have recently engaged in a diplomatic push to patch up their differences.