Hundreds of Saudi Arabia's minority Shiite Muslims, who have long complained of discrimination, have petitioned the royal family for a greater voice inside the Sunni Muslim-dominated kingdom.
A four-page petition signed by about 450 people was presented April 30 to the conservative kingdom's de facto ruler, Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah. It calls on the ruling family to give greater social and political representation to Shiite Muslims in Saudi Arabia, home to Islam's two holiest shrines.
The petition is the first time Shiites have made their concerns so public and demanded greater representation within the country's institutions.
The bold move comes at a time of regional upheaval following the ouster of the Saddam Hussein's Sunni-dominated regime in neighboring Iraq and the strong figuring of Shiite Muslims in that country's political reconstruction. About 60 percent of Iraq's population are Shiite Muslims.
The Associated Press obtained a copy of the petition Sunday entitled "Partners in the Nation."
The document, which also was sent to other royal family members, asks the Saudi government to "clearly declare the kingdom's respect for all Islamic sects, including Shiism."
Before the war, there were fears that Saudi's Shiites would take advantage of a chaotic situation in the region and try to secede. But the petition was seen as a confirmation of the desire of Shiites to back their government.
The fact Abdullah met with the petitioners is a further sign the oil-rich kingdom is serious about introducing reforms, which many Saudi intellectuals say is the only way for the royal family to maintain its legitimacy.
In February, Sunni and Shiite reformers and intellectuals presented Abdullah with a comprehensive reform document that included demands for better representation for Shiites.
The latest petition calls for forming a national committee including Shiites to deal with sectarianism, abolish administrative orders banning Shiites from taking part in public office and make sectarian acts criminal offenses.
It also sought the right for Shiites to be referred to their own religious courts. Sunni courts do not recognize testimonies by Shiites, who hard-liners consider unbelievers.
Shiites comprise between 10-15 percent of Saudi Arabia's 20 million population and live mainly in the kingdom's oil-rich eastern province.
Shiite-Sunni divisions exploded during a violent Shiite revolt in eastern Saudi Arabia following Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution. Saudi forces crushed the Shiite revolt, but a committee was formed soon after to deal with their grievances. Its task ended with improving living conditions for Shiites.
Shiites, however, have continued to complain about restrictions on freedom of worship and poor representation in government posts.
The petition said dealing with sectarianism topped the list of reforms needed in Saudi Arabia, a country that adheres to a puritan form of Sunni Islam Wahhabism where the government's legitimacy hinges on a balance between the kingdom's ruling family and conservative Sunni tribal leaders.
The petition calls for more Shiites to be given government posts, military and diplomatic positions and roles in public institutions. Currently only one Shiite holds the title of undersecretary in a government ministry, while two sit in the appointed 120-member consultative Shura Council.
It also calls for an end to arbitrary detentions and travel bans.
One petitioner, Saudi Shiite businessman Jafar Al Shayeb, said the petition was not intended to anger the government, but to appeal to reformists within the royal family.
Al Shayeb, 42, said the Shiite demands have added importance following the Iraq war. Saudi religious officials have been accusing Shiites of being "agents of the Americans" and demanding aid bound for Iraq not be given to Shiites.