Sri Lanka bans face coverings, including Islamic veil

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The effects of the Easter suicide bombings in Sri Lanka rippled through two denominations on Sunday, with Catholics being kicked out of their churches for fear of further attacks, only ending up with a televised mass and Muslim women receiving the order to cease wearing the veil in public.

President Maithripala Sirisena on Sunday banned all kinds of face coverings that could conceal people’s identities. The emergency law, which comes into effect Monday, prohibits Muslim women from covering their faces.

The move came after Cabinet proposed facial veil laws at a recent meeting. He had postponed the case until talks with Islamic clerics could take place, on the advice of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.

Catholics across the country knelt in front of their televisions as Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, Archbishop of Colombo, delivered a homily to members of the clergy and leaders of the country in a small chapel in his residence in the capital.

The closure of all Catholic churches in Sri Lanka – an extraordinary measure unprecedented in the church’s centuries on this island off the southern tip of India – came after local officials and the Embassy of United States in Colombo warned that more activists were left at large with explosives a week after the attacks claimed by the terrorist group Daesh and targeting churches and hotels left more than 250 dead.

Before the services began, Daesh claimed responsibility for three activists who blew themselves up on Friday evening after exchanging gunfire with police in the east of the country. Investigators sifting through this site and others have uncovered a bomb-making operation capable of causing much more destruction.

“This is a time when our hearts are tested by the great destruction that took place last Sunday,” Ranjith told those watching across the country. “This is a time when questions such as, does God really love us, does he have compassion on us, can arise in human hearts.”

In a rare display of unity, Sirisena, Wickremesinghe and opposition leader Mahinda Rajapaksa attended Mass in person. Their political rivalry and government dysfunction are accused of failing to act on the almost specific information received from foreign intelligence agencies that preceded the bombings, which targeted three churches and three luxury hotels.

Police say they have arrested 48 suspects in the past 24 hours as checkpoints set up by all Sri Lankan security forces popped up in the country of 21 million people. Those arrested include two men whom authorities recently asked the public to locate.

The government has also warned that it will crack down on those who spread false information and make inflammatory remarks.

Police, meanwhile, entered the main mosque at the National Towheed Jamaat on Sunday afternoon, just a day after authorities declared it and another terrorist group on the bombings.

Police entered the mosque, located in Kattankudy, eastern Sri Lanka, and interrupted an interview with foreign journalists and mosque officials. Later, a senior police officer dispersed journalists waiting outside, claiming that the authorities were carrying out a “cordon and search operation”.

The police then left, closing the mosque just before the afternoon prayers began.

Authorities have banned the National Towheed Jamaat because of its ties to Mohammed Zahran, the alleged mastermind of the Easter Sunday attacks. Zahran and other masked had sworn loyalty to Daesh leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi before committing the attacks, showing the danger posed by the terrorist group even after losing all of its territory in Iraq and Syria.

On Friday night, a confrontation with police sparked a shootout with militants in Kalmunai, some 225 kilometers (140 miles) northeast of Colombo. The Sri Lankan military said gunfire and subsequent suicide bombings killed 15 people, including six children.

On Sunday, the Daesh group claimed responsibility for three of the militants who blew themselves up there. In a statement released by the Aamaq terrorists’ news agency, Daesh identified the suicide bombers by their nom de guerre as Abu Hammad, Abu Sufyan and Abu al-Qa’qa. He said they opened fire with automatic weapons and “after exhausting their ammunition, they detonated (…) their explosive belts”.

Police spokesman Ruwan Gunasekara said a woman and a 4-year-old child found injured after the shooting have been identified as Zahran’s wife and daughter.

At Ampara Main Police Station, an outdoor scene now contains what police collected after the shooting. Daesh-aligned activists had set up a bomb-making factory at home, complete with lab-style cups and thick rubber gloves.

Bags of fertilizer, gunpowder and little boxes filled with ball bearings. Police found tens of liters (gallons) of acids, used to make the blast more deadly.

A police investigator, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment publicly, said the mixture of acids had worsened the injuries suffered by those who were not. not immediately died in the explosion.

“In the hospital, many more people died. That’s why,” he said, nodding in the direction of the acids. “It made the wounds incurable.”

The bombers probably carried two rectangular detonators similar to those recovered in their pockets, the investigator said. A red switch cocked the explosives, while a light teal blue button detonated the bombs hidden inside their large backpacks.

Besides the acids, the bombs contained a mixture of fertilizer, gunpowder, ball bearings and explosives typically used by quarries to blow up loose rocks, the investigator said. These explosives made the bombs powerful enough to blow up the roof of St. Sebastian’s Church in Negombo, he said, referring to one of the churches near Colombo targeted during the Easter attacks.

The Sri Lankan Navy controls the sale of mining explosives and investigators have already started to trace the serial numbers of the plastic sticks, he said. A notebook contained bomb-making instructions which had apparently been explained to the writer.

Police also recovered religious flyers in Tamil glorifying the suicide bombings, claiming they allowed the attacker to enter Heaven directly. The investigator compared it to the Tamil Tigers, a separatist group the government defeated in 2009 after a 26-year civil war.

“Their only intention is to kill as many as possible,” said the investigator. “It’s different from the Tamil Tigers. They wanted to control the land. These people want to kill as many as possible.”


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