AWWAMIYA, Saudi Arabia -- A cleric's threat of secession has brought a swift government crackdown in this poor, radical Shiite town in Saudi Arabia's increasingly restive religious minority heartland atop the Sunni kingdom's main oil reserves.
Cleric Sheik Nimr al-Nimr threatened to break away if Saudi authorities don't treat Shiites better. Followers of the sect make up 10 percent of the kingdom's population of 22.6 million and they have long complained of discrimination, saying they are barred from key positions in the military and government and are not given an equal share of the country's wealth.
"Our dignity has been pawned away, and if it is not ... restored, we will call for secession," al-Nimr said during Friday prayers last month. "Our dignity is more precious than the unity of this land."
Since that incendiary sermon, more than 35 people have been arrested in a government crackdown and al-Nimr has gone into hiding. Police have set up checkpoints on the roads leading into Awwamiya, one of the Shiite area's poorest towns.
Other Shiite leaders have distanced themselves from al Nimr's comments, though they say the government must address growing Shiite anger over discrimination and poverty, which they warn could break into unrest.
Secession is a taboo word in Saudi Arabia and a deeply sensitive issue for the government, not only because the Shiite region in the east is the center of the country's oil industry _ but also because it lies close to other Shiite-majority nations like Iran, Bahrain and Iraq.
The new unrest _ some of the most serious in years _ comes at a time when Arab countries like Saudi Arabia are increasingly worried about regional foe Iran's spreading power. Tiny nearby Bahrain, where a Sunni minority rules over a Shiite majority, has also seen a sharp new outbreak of unrest in recent months, adding to the general unease about Iran.
Al-Nimr's words were triggered by a confrontation in late February in the holy city of Medina, when Shiite pilgrims were visiting a cemetery containing the graves of revered Shiite figures. The pilgrims said Sunni religious police videotaped female pilgrims _ an affront to their modesty _ and then refused to hand over the tapes or destroy them.
Officials accused the pilgrims of performing rituals offensive to other worshippers and authorities, and scores of Shiites were injured or jailed in the confrontations. Following a brief meeting between King Abdullah and a Shiite delegation, the detainees were released.
Interior Minister Prince Nayef insisted that Shiites in particular were not targeted in the incident in Medina, saying Sunnis were also arrested.
Sunni worries over the Shiites are both religious and political. The hard-line Wahhabi school of Islam, which is the state religion in Saudi Arabia, considers Shiites infidels _ and hard-liners oppose anything that could boost the sect.
The government is thought to fear that Saudi Shiites will be emboldened by the increased power by Shiites in Iraq since the 2003 fall of Saddam Hussein. They also are concerned that Iran will use Shiites to destabilize the kingdom.
Saudi Arabia follows the "doctrine of the Sunnis," Nayef said, adding that although "there are citizens who follow other schools of thought, the intelligent among them must respect this doctrine," according to remarks carried by the Saudi press.
Muhammad al-Nimr, considered more moderate than his brother, said the government "should have been more prudent and fair" in responding to his brother's sermon, including looking into the sect's complaints.
Anticipating a crackdown over his words, al-Nimr told his followers not to hold protests if he was arrested or pursued _ but instead to hold special prayers.
On Thursday night, in a show of solidarity with al-Nimr, mosques in this town of 25,000 people, nearly all Shiite, blared the prayer of supplication for God's help that Shiism's founding saint, the Imam Ali, is said to have recited in times of crisis. The night before, residents had gone up to their rooftops to shout the prayer.
"People may not dare repeat what Sheik al-Nimr said, but they can say, 'Allah, Allah,'" said al-Nimr's brother, Muhammad al-Nimr, listening to the prayer being blared from mosques around his farm in Awwamiya on Thursday.
In the main Shiite city of Qatif, less radical and more prosperous than Awwamiya, residents adopt a more conciliatory tone than the cleric.
"Al-Nimr's words do not express the view of the majority of the Shiites," said Jaafar al-Shayeb, a Shiite member of Qatif's municipal council. "Shiites do not have a political plan for (secession)."
"He just wanted to express the feelings of anger that are prevalent," al-Shayeb said.