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Sri Lanka Muslim ministers, lawmakers quit en masse

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Legislators of the Sri Lankan parliament gather in front of Speaker Karu Jayasuriya at a session in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on Nov. 15, 2018. (Xinhua/A.Hapuarachchi)

COLOMBO (AFP) – Sri Lanka’s Muslim ministers resigned en masse Monday over widespread hate attacks against their community in the wake of the Easter Sunday bombings that hit the majority Buddhist nation.

The resignation of nine government legislators, several of them cabinet ministers, came after a Buddhist monk lawmaker supporting President Maithripala Sirisena demanded the sacking of three top Muslim politicians.

Demonstrations by several thousand people gripped the central pilgrim city of Kandy as monk Athuraliye Ratana insisted governors of two provinces and a cabinet minister be sacked over their alleged involvement with jihadists responsible for the bombings.

Even as shops and offices were closed in the city 115 kilometres (70 miles) east of Colombo, the two provincial governors stepped down, Sirisena’s office said.

Within hours, the nine legislators, belonging to several Muslim and mainstream parties, resigned saying they were giving up their portfolios to ensure free investigations into the Easter attacks.

The nine included Commerce Minister Rishad Bathiudeen, the cabinet minister whose sacking had been demanded by Ratana.

Muslim leaders said their community – which consists of 10 percent of SriLanka’s 21 million population – had become victims of violence, hate speech and harassment since Islamic extremists were held responsible for the bombings.

Water Supply Minister Rauff Hakeem said Muslims had cooperated with security forces to arrest suspects, but the community faced collective victimisation.

“We want an end to hate speech, an end to the culture of hate and the culture of impunity for those engaging in hate,” Hakeem told reporters shortly after quitting the cabinet.

He said the Muslims were giving up their portfolios in the hope that the authorities will fully investigate the allegations against members of their community within a month.

The ministers who quit Monday will remain loyal to the government of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, they said in a joint statement.

Inside Kandy’s famed Temple of the Tooth, where Buddhists believe a tooth of the Buddha is enshrined, prominent monk Ratana ended what he had called a “death fast” since the weekend after the first two resignations.

Buddhist monks accuse the three Muslim leaders of supporting the Islamic extremists responsible for the April 21 attacks on three churches and three hotels that killed 258 people including 45 foreigners.

The head of the Catholic Church in Colombo, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, also travelled to Kandy on Monday to express solidarity with Ratana.

“We support the monk’s campaign because so far justice has not been served,” Ranjith told reporters in Kandy.

Government spokesman and Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera criticised Ranjith for supporting “communalism”.

“Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith fanning the flames of hatred and communalism by visiting fasting robed MP Ratana. Vatican TAKE NOTE!” Samaraweera said on Twitter.

The government has said nearly 100 people linked to local jihad group, the National Thowheeth Jama’ath (NTJ), have been arrested since the attacks.

In the wake of the bombings, anti-Muslim riots spread in towns north of the capital killing one Muslim man and leaving hundreds of homes, shops and mosques vandalised.

“The demonstrations fizzled out peacefully by afternoon,” a police official told AFP.

Sri Lanka is under a state of emergency since the Easter attacks.

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