Reuters International

DUBAI (Reuters) - Senior clerics warned on Saturday against any attempt to target Shi'ite Islam by undermining a pillar of the sect's creed, the Khums tax, apparently following reports that authorities were investigating funds held by Bahrain's top Shi'ite cleric.

The warning could pave the way for a showdown between the Gulf Arab state's Sunni-led government and the country's majority Shi'ite Muslims following a court order that suspended the main opposition Shi'ite al-Wefaq group. That move was criticised by the United States and the United Nations.

Four senior clerics, including the top Shi'ite Muslim authority, Ayatollah Isa Qassem, said in a statement that the Khums, or fifth in Arabic - a tax that dates back to early Islam - represents a pillar of the Shi'ite faith and that it has been collected as a duty for hundreds of years to spend in the service of Islam.

"The targeting of this duty under any name targets the (Shi'ite) sect, and amounts to a blatant assault on the freedom of sectarian practice which is guaranteed in accordance with the... Constitution and all international charters," the statement said.

"We utterly reject any infringement on this freedom...," it added, without elaborating on who might be behind the action or making any direct and specific accusation against any party.

The statement follows a decision by a Bahraini court last week to suspend al-Wefaq, a move that followed the justice ministry's accusing the group of promoting sectarianism and of links to foreign powers, an apparent reference to Iran. The group denies the charges.

It also follows reports by state media and local newspapers about an investigation of two Islamic charities linked to al-Wefaq and a bank account with some $10 million in the name of Ayatollah Qassem, the country's most senior Shi'ite religious authority.

Qassem had yet to make any direct public statement on the reports.

The United States, the United Nations and Britain last week expressed concern about the closing of al-Wefaq, saying the move could threaten the country's stability.

Bahrain, where the U.S. Fifth Fleet is based, was rocked by mass protests in 2011. Shi'ite Muslims, widely believed to constitute the majority of the country's 1.35 million population, demanded more democracy and a bigger share in government.

The government has crushed the protests with help from Saudi Arabia but political reconciliation remains an illusive goal.

(Reporting by Sami Aboudi; Editing by Dan Grebler)

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