MANAMA (Reuters) - A Bahraini court ordered the dissolution of a group of Shi'ite Muslim clerics on Wednesday, declaring it illegal in a ruling that could harm reconciliation efforts aimed at ending political unrest in the U.S.-allied island kingdom.
The court's decision comes a few weeks after stalled reconciliation talks between the Sunni ruling family and the Shi'ite opposition were revived, raising some hope of progress to end the political impasse.
Bahrain, home to the U.S. Fifth Fleet, has been hit by low-level civil unrest since 2011 when mainly Shi'ite protesters took to the streets calling for democratic reforms.
The court said the Islamic Scholars' Council, which is close to the main Shi'ite opposition group al-Wefaq, was not officially registered in the Gulf Arab state.
Information Minister Sameera Rajab said it had adopted what she said was a dangerous political and sectarian role.
"The group that makes up the council includes political clerics who use the religious pulpit for political and sectarian incitement," she told Reuters. The council represented Shi'ite political groups but not the wider community, she added.
Rajab told pan-Arab news channel al-Arabiya that the ruling should not stop dialogue with the opposition, which was ongoing.
"The dialogue is between political groups and political parties representing the street and there is no dialogue with religious groups or those that represent doctrines or sects," she said.
OPPOSITION DEFENDS SCHOLARS
The ruling was criticised by the opposition, which has accused the hardliners in the al-Khalifa ruling family of spoiling reconciliation attempts in the past.
Sheikh Ali Salman, Wefaq's secretary-general, said the ruling would have a negative effect on any attempts to move forward with the reconciliation process.
"The decision to target the Scholars' Council targets the Shi'ite community in Bahrain," he told Reuters.
He said the council had made general comments on topics such as national unity and public demands but was not a political group. It consisted of some 130 people and was set up about five years ago, he added.
Bahrain's Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, seen as a moderate member of the royal family, pulled reconciliation talks back from the brink after he met with Wefaq leaders earlier this month. Both sides have agreed on topics for new talks.
But mistrust between the Shi'ite opposition and the Saudi-backed al-Khalifa family is still high three years after the authorities quelled the protests. Many Bahraini Shi'ites regard the reconciliatory gestures with scepticism.
Almost daily protests and clashes between protesters and the police have persisted and previous rounds of talks have failed to end the unrest in Bahrain, which is caught in the middle of a regional struggle for influence between Shi'ite power Iran and Sunni heavyweight Saudi Arabia.
In a sign of ongoing tension, Bahraini police firing teargas and birdshot clashed with some 200 protesters in the Shi'ite village of Diraz on Wednesday after a mourning procession for a young man who died in custody, witnesses said.
(Reporting by Farishta Saeed, Writing by Sylvia Westall; Editing by Tom Heneghan)