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With Shiites rising across the region, Saudi Arabia's grow impatient

Older leaders among the minority aim to peacefully address discrimination but warn that younger Shiites are pushing for militancy.

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"It is the right of the majority to take [control of] the government, but they should take care of the minority," says Mr. Nemer. "The solution is to open the country, give freedom for political action, and accept others as they are.... There has to be a minimum of democracy."

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Sheikh threatens to secede

The frustrations of Shiites here in Eastern Province bubbled up several months ago after three days of clashes between the government and Shiites in Medina, Islam's second-holiest city.

The government says the clashes were set off by Shiites defying regulations at the city's ancient Muslim cemetery. Those regulations bar women from entering, and ban collecting soil or sand from the burial site. They are enforced by religious police, whose Wahhabi beliefs regard some Shiite practices as heretical.

Of the 71 people briefly detained, 22 were Sunni and 49 Shiite, says a government source who declined to be named.

Ministry of Interior spokesman Gen. Mansour Al Turki said in a recent Monitor interview that the government prohibits certain religious practices in Medina and Mecca in order not to offend the majority of Muslims, who are Sunni.

"The kingdom is very much concerned that all Muslims have the right to perform hajj, to visit the Prophet's Mosque in Medina. But all Muslims have to respect each other," Mr. Turki said. "We will not allow any group of Muslims to try to do anything which we feel will make the other party upset." Since all Muslim sects agree on "90 or 95 percent of things," he added, "that's what we should concentrate on."

But Nemer, the Shiite cleric, says Shiites should be able to practice their rituals. "Shia will keep being Shia and will keep going to [holy graves in Medina] and will practice their beliefs there," he said. "So if the other side expects that it will be able to force his way of visiting [holy graves], we will have a problem again."

The Medina clashes set off several days of Shiite protests in Eastern Province. Awwamiya's Sheikh Al-Nimer then gave his provocative Friday sermon, before going into hiding. "We will demand our dignity be restored in all permissible ways.... If it comes down to it ... we will call for seceding from this nation," he proclaimed.

For several weeks, sympathizers of the sheikh staged demonstrations and security forces set up checkpoints. Interior spokesman Turki said authorities have no interest in escalating tensions but want to question Al-Nimer about Medina events because "we believe that these people have been influenced by somebody in their community."

Shiite community leaders publicly rejected Nimer's secession talk, adding privately that his remarks had hurt their cause.

"He spoke of secession; this phrase was a very, very big mistake and he shouldn't have said it," says Tawfiq Al Saif, a writer and Shiite activist in Dammam.

But Shiite grievances remain, Mr. Saif added, and times have changed.

"Most Shia are believing in their rights and they believe they will get their rights," he said. "They believe the world has changed to their benefit, not against it."