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Saudi Arabia's Execution Of Shiite Cleric Sets Off Diplomatic War With Iran

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The execution of a prominent Shiite cleric in Saudi Arabia over the weekend broke open long-standing sectarian tensions between that country and Iran. The diplomatic rift is spreading throughout the region. More on that in a moment. But first, that Shiite cleric - who was he, and how did he draw the ire of the Saudis? Well, in part by advocating for equal rights for Saudi's Shia minority. NPR's Leila Fadel has more in this profile.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: In his hometown of Awamiya, Nimr al-Nimr was seen as a leader for young, disaffected Shia Muslims in the Eastern province Qatif who wanted change. An activist in Nimr's hometown using the nickname Abu Saleh to avoid arrest says by phone that Nimr was known for his bravery.

ABU SALEH: He say what we want to say. He reflects our demands. He reflects our ambition.

FADEL: On a recent visit to Nimr's hometown, the walls were covered in graffiti renderings of his face. He represented the new generation of Shia Saudis who were ready to risk arrest to demand their rights.

TOBY MATTHIESEN: He said things that other people would only say in private. And at the end the day, he urged his followers to go out and protest even though, you know, any form of public protest is illegal in Saudi Arabia.

FADEL: That's Toby Matthiesen. He wrote a book on Saudi Shias and is a senior research fellow at the University of Oxford. He says that Nimr openly supported peaceful protests in 2011 for dignity, freedom and equal rights both in Saudi's Eastern province and in neighboring Bahrain. Matthiesen quoted one of Nimr's famous lines. The roar of the word is more powerful than bullets. Here's Nimr in a speech posted online.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NIMR AL-NIMR: (Through interpreter) The oppressed should unite together against the oppressors instead of becoming tools in the hands of the oppressors.

FADEL: Nimr was born in the village of Awamiya around 1960. He spent some 15 year in exile, returning in the mid-'90s. After that, he was in and out of prison for calling for free elections, and at one point, he suggested that the Shia majority Eastern province Qatif secede from Saudi Arabia if demands weren't met. But Saudi's government painted him as a violent radical loyal to Iran. In one sermon, Nimr disputed that claim.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AL-NIMR: (Through interpreter) We have no ties with Iran or any other country. We are connected to our values, and we will defend them.

FADEL: As U.S. embassy cable revealed by WikiLeaks says Nimr met with U.S. officials in 2008. In that meeting, he said he was not anti-American or pro-Iranian. He just wanted liberty in Saudi Arabia. Later, he would differ with Iran on the subject of Syria, where he denounced the oppression of the Syrian regime even though it's backed by Tehran.

In 2011, he became the leading figurehead for antigovernment protests demanding reforms that would allow Shias the same rights as all other citizens. He never backed down from his demands even when other Shia leaders did. Leila Fadel, NPR News, Cairo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.