World News

Syria lifts niqab ban, shuts casino, in nod to Sunnis

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syria lifted on Wednesday a ban on teachers wearing the full face veil and ordered the closure of a casino, moves aimed at placating conservative Muslims in the tightly-controlled country that has seen weeks of unrest.

A Syrian girl wears a veil also known as niqab in Damascus July 21, 2010. REUTERS/Khaled al-Hariri

Last month pro-democracy protests erupted in the majority Sunni Muslim city of Deraa and later spread to other cities, including the religiously-mixed port city of Latakia, posing the greatest challenge to Assad’s 11-year rule.

Thousands of people protested in the Damascus suburb of Douma on Friday, dissatisfied by gestures President Bashar al-Assad has made towards reform.

Wednesday’s decisions are aimed at assuaging religious conservatives in the majority Sunni Muslim country, where the ruling hierarchy is of the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam.

Caretaker Education Minister Ali Saad said the ministry had decided to allow teachers wearing the niqab to return to work, according to state news agency SANA. Assad had imposed the ban on the niqab last year.

Syria’s at-Tishreen newspaper also reported the closure of the country’s only casino because “those who attended the casino were engaging in unlawful acts.”

Assad’s Baath Party, in power for 48 years, is secular, but the cornerstone of Damascus’ foreign policy is its anti-Israeli alliance with Shi’ite Iran and Shi’ite militant group Hezbollah and Palestinian Islamist militant group Hamas.

Assad’s father, late President Hafez al-Assad had no tolerance for the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood and in 1982 sent in special forces who crushed an armed rebellion by the group, killing thousands.

But the state has since allowed Islamists to exercise huge social influence and the number of veiled women has risen.

Syrian officials have tried to frame the protests, which have been demanding greater freedoms, as a “project to sow sectarian strife.”

Writing by Yara Bayoumy; editing by Elizabeth Piper