KUWAIT CITY (AFP) – The Gulf state of Kuwait on Sunday banned public gatherings in a bid to contain rising tensions between Sunni and Shiite Muslims over inflammatory remarks by a Shiite activist in self-imposed exile.
“This is a (sectarian) rift and it must be stopped,” head of the interior ministry’s legal department Brigadier Asaad al-Ruwayeh told a news conference as he read an official statement banning gatherings.
No public gathering, procession or demonstration can be held without the prior approval from authorities, it said.
Ruwayeh said violators could face a two-year jail term, adding that the ministry is taking the measures to “safeguard security and stability.”
Acting premier and defence minister Sheikh Jaber Mubarak al-Sabah later said the “government will firmly confront all those trying to drag the country into a sectarian rift.”
“We could not remain silent and had to act,” the official KUNA news agency cited him as telling editors of Kuwaiti newspapers.
The decision came as several Sunni Islamist groups announced public gatherings to press for the extradition of Shiite activist Yasser al-Habeeb.
But they later said they will suspend such gatherings to give the government time to take action against Habeeb who has lived in London since fleeing Kuwait in 2004.
Sheikh Jaber told the editors ministers had considered several measures, including withdrawing Habeeb’s citizenship, and that a final decision will be taken on Monday.
Sectarian tensions in the predominantly Sunni Gulf state flared after Habeeb made disparaging remarks about the Prophet Mohammed’s wife, Aisha.
Habeeb, who fled Kuwait to escape two 10-year prison terms for abusive remarks about Islam’s first two caliphs, held a ceremony to celebrate the anniversary of Aisha’s death at his London office more than two weeks ago, when he made the remarks, according to a video on his website.
His comments were condemned by Sunni Islamists who urged the government to seek Habeeb’s extradition or revoke his citizenship, while Shiite MPs also called for similar action against Sunni activists critical of Shiism.
Some Sunni Islamist MPs threatened to grill the premier or interior minister in parliament if the government failed to take action.
Shiites make up about one-third of the Kuwaiti population of 1.1 million people. They have nine members in the 50-seat parliament and two members in the emirate’s 16-member cabinet.