Sri Lanka imposes nationwide curfew after mosques attacked

A Muslim man stands inside the Abbraar Masjid mosque after a mob attack in Kiniyama, Sri Lanka May 13, 2019. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

By Alexandra Ulmer and Omar Rajarathnam

KINIYAMA, Sri Lanka (Reuters) – Sri Lankan police fired tear gas at mobs attacking mosques and shops owned by Muslims on Monday and imposed a nationwide curfew after the worst outbreak of sectarian violence since the Easter bombings by Islamist militants.

The militants targeted churches and hotels, most of them in Colombo, killing more than 250 people in an attack claimed by Islamic State and fuelling fears of a backlash against the island nation’s minority Muslims.

Residents in Muslim parts of North Western Province said mobs had attacked mosques and damaged shops and businesses owned by Muslims for a second day.

“There are hundreds of rioters, police and army are just watching. They have burnt our mosques and smashed many shops owned by Muslims,” a resident of Kottampitiya area told Reuters by telephone, asking not to be identified for fear of reprisals.

“When we try to come out of our house, police tell us to stay inside.”

Police imposed a nationwide curfew until from 9 p.m. (1530 GMT) to 4 a.m., spokesman Ruwan Gunasekera said.

Authorities also imposed a temporary ban on social media networks and messaging apps including WhatsApp after a clash in another part of the country was traced to a dispute on Facebook.

A police source said police had fired tear gas to disperse mobs in some places in North Western Province.

Muslims make up nearly 10 percent of Sri Lanka’s 22 million people who are predominantly Sinhalese Buddhists.

A Reuters reporter saw a mob of several dozen young Sinhalese men wielding sticks and rods in what appeared to be a standoff in the town of Madulla in North Western Province.

Many anxious Muslims were hunkering down at home but young men, some of them carrying rods, were still zipping around on motorbikes, despite regional curfews from 2 p.m. before the nationwide curfew was imposed.

Abbraar Masjid mosque is seen after a mob attack in Kiniyama, Sri Lanka May 13, 2019. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

Abbraar Masjid mosque is seen after a mob attack in Kiniyama, Sri Lanka May 13, 2019. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

MOSQUE RANSACKED

Glass was strewn across the Abrar mosque in the town of Kiniyama that was attacked overnight. All the windows and doors of the soft-pink building were smashed and copies of the Koran were thrown onto the floor.

A mosque official said the attacks were triggered when several people, including some Buddhist monks, demanded a search of the main building after soldiers had inspected a 105-acre (43-hectare) lake nearby.

Authorities suspect lakes and wells are being used as hiding places to conceal weapons.

A 34-year-old man who was at the mosque said about 150-200 came toward the mosque with rods and swords on Sunday but the Muslims who were in the mosque persuaded them to go away with the help of the police.

But they came back and this time there were about 1,300 people. The Muslims, huddled in the mosque, asked the police to fire in the air to disperse the mob, but the police said the people wanted to inspect the mosque for weapons.

Then the crowd surged into the mosque and ransacked it, the witness said.

“They destroyed and burned Korans, broke every glass window and door and urinated on the water storage which Muslims used to take ablution,” he said.

Police spokesman Gunasekera did not respond to a request for comment on the incident. But in an emailed statement he said there had been some damage to property in Hettipola area of Kurunegala district but no injuries reported.

The police source said police also fired in the air the Hettipola area.

Several dozen people threw stones at mosques and Muslim-owned stores and a man was beaten in the Christian-majority town of Chilaw on the west coast on Sunday in the dispute that started on Facebook, police sources and residents told Reuters.

Authorities said they arrested the author of a Facebook post, identified as 38-year-old Abdul Hameed Mohamed Hasmar, whose online comment “1 day u will cry” people said was interpreted as threatening violence.

“Social media blocked again as a temporary measure to maintain peace in the country,” Nalaka Kaluwewa, director general of the government information department, told Reuters on Monday.

On Twitter, Sri Lanka’s leading mobile phone operator, Dialog Axiata Plc, said it had also received instructions to block the apps Viber, IMO, Snapchat, Instagram and YouTube until further notice.

(Additional reporting by Shihar Aneez, Ranga Sirilal; Writing by Sanjeev Miglani; Editing by Alison Williams)

Backstory: Finding some solace amid the bloodshed in Christchurch and Colombo

FILE PHOTO: A security officer stands guard outside St. Anthony's Shrine, days after a string of suicide bomb attacks on churches and luxury hotels across the island on Easter Sunday, in Colombo, Sri Lanka April 26, 2019. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha/File Photo

By Tom Lasseter

COLOMBO (Reuters) – The island nations of New Zealand and Sri Lanka are separated by some 6,600 miles (10,600 km) of ocean. But in just over a month’s time, each has seen mass killings that generated similar headlines.

In Christchurch, New Zealand, a man with his finger on the trigger of an AR-15 assault rifle stormed into mosques during Friday prayers on March 15. By the end of it, 51 people who had come to worship in two houses of God were dead.

In Colombo and other Sri Lankan cities, a group of nine suicide bombers struck in coordinated explosions on April 21. They strolled into St. Anthony’s Shrine in the capital, St. Sebastian’s Church in nearby Negombo and a church to the east of the country as the faithful sat in pews on Easter Sunday.

They also entered crowded restaurants in the Shangri-La and other hotels, as families tucked into breakfast buffets. The explosions that followed killed at least 253 people in total.

I flew into both cities in the aftermath of the massacres.

There was an obvious temptation to dwell on the symmetry of the tragedies.

The gunman in Christchurch had names written down the side of his rifle evoking past crusades by Christians against Muslims. Videos surfaced of the alleged ringleader of the Sri Lankan bombings, a radical Muslim preacher, calling for death to non-believers.

As I crisscrossed Sri Lanka in the back of a sport utility vehicle last week, though, I wondered about investing too much in the similarities, of seeing them as a part of an inevitable string of modern terror.

Instead, I thought about the different paths taken by two Muslim men we profiled – one a victim, one a suspected killer.

FILE PHOTO: Imam Ibrahim Abdelhalim of the Linwood Mosque poses for a picture at the door of his house in Christchurch, New Zealand March 16, 2019. REUTERS/Jorge Silva/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: Imam Ibrahim Abdelhalim of the Linwood Mosque poses for a picture at the door of his house in Christchurch, New Zealand March 16, 2019. REUTERS/Jorge Silva/File Photo

In Christchurch, I wrote about Ibrahim Abdelhalim. He moved to New Zealand in 1995. He’d enjoyed a relatively comfortable life in Cairo, but wanted a better future for his children.

Once there, the only job he could find was as a clerk at Work and Income, the government agency for employment services and financial assistance. No matter.

He also served as an imam, or spiritual leader, at a mosque.

When the gunman began shooting into the mosque where Abdelhalim was praying, the 67-year-old grandfather watched, helpless, as bullets pinned down his son on the floor before him. Abdelhalim’s wife was shot in the arm. It seemed possible he was about to witness the slaughter of his loved ones.

But after the violence, which his family survived, Abdelhalim threw himself into counseling the relatives of the dead. His heart was broken, but Abdelhalim decided to serve and to rebuild.

About a month later, I traveled with a colleague from the Singapore bureau, Shri Navaratnam, to the Sri Lankan town of Kattankudy. There we dug into the background of Mohamed Hashim Mohamed Zahran, the alleged leader of the Easter Sunday bombings.

He was expelled from his Islamic studies school for being too radical. Throughout his life, he was shunned by many of the Muslims around him.

Zahran went into hiding in 2017 after a fight in which his men confronted Sufi Muslims with swords. He disappeared again the next year after popping up in another town, where Buddha statues were vandalized.

FILE PHOTO: A police officer inspects the site of a gun battle between troops and suspected Islamist militants, on the east coast of Sri Lanka, in Kalmunai, April 28, 2019. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: A police officer inspects the site of a gun battle between troops and suspected Islamist militants, on the east coast of Sri Lanka, in Kalmunai, April 28, 2019. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte/File Photo

The variation in that pair of narratives is, to me, worth remembering. During my years of covering war and its aftermath in Iraq and then Afghanistan, I saw communities warped by the shock of repeated violence and the sometimes brutal forces of identity and clan-based power. But even on the bloodiest of days, there were hints of solace.

After our story about Zahran was published last Friday, there was another development.

His father and two brothers were killed during a gun battle when security forces stormed their safe house. They had recorded a video calling for jihad, or holy war.

I suppose you could dwell on that and the fact that others close to him had gone down the same road.

But this is what caught my eye: the cops raided the house based on a tip that armed strangers had moved into the community. Passing that information along could have put the sources at risk. Who had spoken up? Muslims at a local mosque.

(Additional reporting by Shri Navaratnam and Tom Westbrook; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

U.S. religious centers buy more insurance after raft of shootings

FILE PHOTO: A member of the Chabad of Midtown prays during a service for members of the Poway San Diego Chabad Synagogue, in New York, U.S., April 29, 2019. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid/File Photo

By Suzanne Barlyn

(Reuters) – U.S. religious centers are buying special insurance to protect them from the financial consequences of an armed intruder opening fire in their buildings.

Many congregations have been reassessing coverage and buying separate “active assailant” policies as shootings at houses of worship, including churches, synagogues and mosques, become more common, religious leaders and insurance representatives said in interviews.

“You didn’t think about it until the last couple of years and now it’s something that you think about all the time,” said Brian McAuliffe, director of risk management for Willow Creek Community Church, whose six Illinois locations serve some 20,000 congregants.

Potential violence has become top-of-mind for many religious organizations, following a spate of shootings in recent years.

Last Saturday, a woman was fatally shot and three people injured at Chabad of Poway synagogue in suburban San Diego by a gunman identified as John Earnest, 19. He pleaded not guilty to the shootings on Tuesday.

The Poway attack, on the last day of Passover, came six months to the day after 11 worshippers were shot to death at a Pittsburgh synagogue in the deadliest attack ever on American Jewry.

Other shootings in recent years killed 26 people at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, in 2017; nine worshippers at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015; and six people at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin in 2012.

Violence also has come in other forms this year, such as the burning of three predominantly black churches in southern Louisiana between March 26 and April 4.

Willow Creek bought an active assailant policy two years ago, McAuliffe said. The added insurance covers expenses that are typically excluded from general liability coverage, including medical expenses, victim lawsuits, building repairs or replacement and media consultants.

VULNERABILITIES

Houses of worship face unique risks because of their mission to be welcoming, insurers and brokers said. The physical set-up of many worship centers also is a concern.

“You come in the back and everyone is facing the other way,” said Peter Persuitti, who heads the religious practice for insurance broker Arthur J. Gallagher & Co. “They are so vulnerable.”

Willow Creek’s coverage costs a “couple of thousand dollars” a year, which is a small fraction of its overall insurance budget, McAuliffe said.

Premiums for one policy backed by insurer AXA XL costs $1,200 per $1 million of coverage, said Paul Marshall, who heads the active shooter insurance program for the Ohio-based McGowan Companies, which underwrites the coverage.

Recent attacks spurred five synagogues and churches to buy the coverage this week, Marshall said.

The Archdiocese of Indianapolis bought active assailant coverage last year, covering 141 parishes and 75 schools, said Mike Witka, director of risk management.

Insurance companies also are ramping up educational programs for faith-based policyholders to help them manage the risk of violent intruders. For example, nearly 200 parishioners and staff from congregations insured through Church Mutual Insurance Co packed a church in Lenexa, Kansas, last month for a half-day seminar. They learned how to develop security plans and minimize bloodshed if someone opens fire.

The event is one of nine that Church Mutual planned for the year.

Church Mutual’s general liability policy includes “catastrophic violence” coverage of up to $50,000 per victim and $300,000 per violent incident.

Other measures could change how Americans have long envisioned their religious surroundings.

“We don’t really like to shut our doors because we want to be welcoming,” Witka said. “But we have to start thinking that once mass starts, the doors have to be locked and shut.”

(Reporting by Suzanne Barlyn; Editing by Lauren Tara LaCapra and Bill Trott)

Austria to shut down mosques, expel foreign-funded imams

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache and Interior Minister Herbert Kickl attend a news conference in Vienna, Austria June 8, 2018. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger

VIENNA (Reuters) – Austria’s right-wing government plans to shut seven mosques and could expel dozens of imams in what it said was “just the beginning” of a push against radical Islam and foreign funding of religious groups that Turkey condemned as racist.

The coalition government, an alliance of conservatives and the far right, came to power soon after Europe’s migration crisis on promises to prevent another influx and restrict benefits for new immigrants and refugees.

The moves follow a “law on Islam”, passed in 2015, which banned foreign funding of religious groups and created a duty for Muslim organizations to have “a positive fundamental view towards (Austria’s) state and society”.

“Political Islam’s parallel societies and radicalizing tendencies have no place in our country,” said Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, who, in a previous job as minister in charge of integration, steered the Islam bill into law.

Standing next to him and two other cabinet members on Friday, far-right Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache told a news conference: “This is just the beginning.”

Austria, a country of 8.8 million people, has roughly 600,000 Muslim inhabitants, most of whom are Turkish or have families of Turkish origin.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan’s spokesman said the new policy was part of an “Islamophobic, racist and discriminatory wave” in Austria.

“The Austrian government’s ideologically charged practices are in violation of universal legal principles, social integration policies, minority rights and the ethics of co-existence,” Ibrahim Kalin tweeted.

The ministers at the news conference said up to 60 imams belonging to the Turkish-Islamic Union for Cultural and Social Cooperation in Austria (ATIB), a Muslim group close to the Turkish government, could be expelled from the country or have visas denied on the grounds of receiving foreign funding.

A government handout put the number at 40, of whom 11 were under review and two had already received a negative ruling.

ATIB spokesman Yasar Ersoy acknowledged that its imams were paid by Diyanet, the Turkish state religious authority, but it was trying to change that.

“We are currently working on having imams be paid from funds within the country,” he told ORF radio.

One organization that runs a mosque in Vienna and is influenced by the “Grey Wolves”, a Turkish nationalist youth group, will be shut down for operating illegally, as will an Arab Muslim group that runs at least six mosques, the government said in a statement.

(Reporting by Francois Murphy; Additional reporting by Ali Kucukgocmen in Istanbul; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)

Facing far-right challenge, minister says Islam ‘doesn’t belong’ to Germany

German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer is sworn-in by Parliament President Wolfgang Schaeuble in Germany's lower house of parliament Bundestag in Berlin, Germany, March 14, 2018. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

By Michelle Martin

BERLIN (Reuters) – New Interior Minister Horst Seehofer said Islam does not belong to Germany, and set out hardline immigration policies in his first major interview since being sworn in this week, as he sought to see off rising far-right challengers.

His comments put him on a collision course with Chancellor Angela Merkel, who on Friday reiterated her long-held view that Islam was a part of Germany, even if the country was traditionally characterized by Christianity and Judaism.

“Islam does not belong to Germany,” Seehofer, a member of Merkel’s CSU Bavarian allies who are further to the right than her own Christian Democrats (CDU), told Bild newspaper in an interview published on Friday.

Seehofer said he would push through a “master plan for quicker deportations” and classify more states as ‘safe’ countries of origin, which would make it easier to deport failed asylum seekers.

Seehofer is particularly keen to show his party is tackling immigration ahead of Bavaria’s October regional election, when the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) is expected to enter that state assembly.

Both Merkel’s conservatives and their centre-left coalition partners – the Social Democrats – lost ground to the anti-immigrant AfD in September’s national election following the arrival in Germany of more than a million migrants and refugees.

Merkel, who has faced strong criticism from some Germans as well as elsewhere in Europe for agreeing to take in so many migrants, most of them Muslims, reaffirmed on Friday her vision of an inclusive, multi-ethnic Germany.

“There are now four million Muslims living in Germany and they practice their religion here and these Muslims belong to Germany, as does their religion – Islam,” she said.

“LIVE WITH US”

Many of the Muslims living in Germany are of Turkish origin. But a majority of those who have arrived in the past three years are from Syria, Iraq and other conflict zones in the Middle East and beyond.

Seehofer’s comments come at a sensitive time for Germany’s Muslim community. Several organisations representing them complained on Thursday that politicians were not showing enough solidarity after a spate of attacks on mosques.

“Of course the Muslims living here do belong to Germany,” Seehofer told Bild, but added that Germany should not give up its own traditions or customs, which have Christianity at their heart.

“My message is: Muslims need to live with us, not next to us or against us,” he said.

Andre Poggenburg, head of the AfD in the eastern state of Saxony, said Seehofer was copying his party with a view to Bavaria’s October regional election: “Horst Seehofer has taken this message from our manifesto word for word.”

The far-left Linke and Greens condemned Seehofer’s message, and the Social Democrats’ Natascha Kohnen told broadcaster n-tv: “Saying that incites people against each other at a time when we really don’t need that. What we really need is politicians who bring people together.”

In their coalition agreement, Merkel’s CDU/CSU conservative bloc and the Social Democrats agreed they would manage and limit migration to Germany and Europe to avoid a re-run of the 2015 refugee crisis.

They also said they did not expect migration (excluding labor migration) to rise above the range of 180,000 to 220,000 per year.

(Reporting by Michelle Martin; Editing by Gareth Jones)