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Ahead of Protests, Syria Closes Casino, Lifts Veil Ban

The entrance to the newly opened Casino Damascus, Syria, (File)

Syria on Wednesday shuttered its only casino and overturned a decision banning teachers from wearing the Islamic veil.

The overture to conservative Muslims comes ahead of more protests planned this week by anti-government activists.

They have called on crowds to commemorate the more than 60 people who human rights groups say were killed in recent protests against Syria's rulers. The government has blamed the deaths and the unrest on "armed groups."

President Bashar al-Assad has generally promoted secularism in Syria. But recent protests have seen a sectarian divide. Assad's Baath Party is secular but the country's power structure is aligned with Alawites, who belong to a branch of Shi'ite Islam and comprise about one-tenth of Syria's population.

The protesters generally are Sunni Muslims. Religious conservatives opposed the casino establishment and Assad's decision last year to ban the wearing of the niqab, the full veil that reveals only the eyes.

President Assad has put forth a series of planned reforms, including changing some in leadership and studying the lifting of the country's emergency law banning gatherings. But the offers have failed to stop opposition demands.

Assad met Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu in Damascus on Wednesday. Turkey has pledged to help Syria implement reforms.

Some information for this report was provided by AP, AFP and Reuters.