Manama: Less than 5,000 Asians were granted Bahraini citizenship in the past 56 years, said the Interior Minister.

"The figure of 4,971 represents about 1.5 per cent of the total Indian and Pakistani population living in the kingdom which is estimated to be 350,000," Shaikh Rashid Bin Abdullah Al Khalifa said.

The minister was responding to allegations that surfaced last week, claiming that about 10,000 Asians were being granted Bahraini citizenship by the government for political reasons.

The allegations quickly turned into intense and highly media-oriented debates that unavoidably slid into controversy after opponents of naturalisation charged the government with seeking to alter the Sunni-Shiite balance and helping its candidates win their constituencies in the forthcoming parliamentary and municipal elections.

But Shaikh Rashid refuted the claims, saying that they were 'unfounded' and that 'Bahrain's naturalisation procedures are apolitical and in full compliance with the law.'

"There is nothing political about the issue which is in fact being portrayed as such by those who have political aims," Shaikh Rashid on Saturday told the editors-in-chief of the local papers.

"We have lived with naturalisation since 1937 without sensitive reactions and it has never been an issue linked with special occasions or events."

The minister said that 50,000 eligible applicants were granted Bahraini citizenship in the last five decades.

"More than 30,000 of them were of Iranian origin," he said, refuting claims that the government was pushing a pro-Sunni naturalisation policy to alter the country's demography.

He said that 20,000 applications were received by the immigration authorities in the last three years, but only 5,000 were accepted.

"These include 3,000 children whose mothers were Bahrainis and foreign-born husbands married to Bahraini women," he said.

The minister's statements came one week before political formations are due to discuss the issue.