COLOMBO, Sri Lanka: Anger mounts after at least 15 Muslims, including a 20-day-old baby, were cremated in Sri Lanka against the family wishes and funeral rites laid out in Islam.
Muslims in Sri Lanka are outraged over the forced cremation of a 20-day-old Covid-19 victim against the family’s wishes, the latest in more than a dozen such cremations in the Buddhist-majority country since the pandemic erupted.
Ignoring the World Health Organization’s (WHO) guidelines which permit both burials and cremations, Sri Lanka in March made cremation mandatory for people who die or are suspected to have died from the coronavirus infection.
Every few days, Sri Lankan Muslims take to the streets in hopes that their protest will help to change the government guidelines and allow them to bury their dead.
Before the coronavirus outbreak, funeral rites of Muslims were not a problem for the country’s Buddhist and Hindu majority groups which practice cremation. Even when the pandemic approached in March last year, the Health Ministry issued a notification permitting Muslim burial of those infected.
Everything changed, however, when the disease claimed its first Muslim victim, Mohammed Jamal from Negombo city, and on March 30, hospital workers cremated him without the consent of his wife and children. On April 11, the government guidelines were updated, introducing mandatory cremation of all coronavirus deceased, regardless of their faith.
“Lankan Muslims are not afraid of death but they are traumatised by the rule of forced cremation,” said rights activist Shreen Saroor.
Protests have been held in all major cities. On Sunday, a demonstration against forced cremation was staged in Killionochi, a Tamil-dominated township in the north, while another one took place on Thursday near the main crematorium in Colombo.
Sri Lankans abroad are also protesting, with the most recent rally held in Washington on Saturday by Sri Lankans United (SLU), a diaspora group in the US.
“Sri Lanka has made the cremation of all Covid-19 victims mandatory, defying the guidelines set out by the World Health Organization and other scientific experts, who categorically said that there is absolutely no health hazard in burying the victims according to their religious beliefs,” Mizli Rifki of the SLU said.
International groups, including the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, European Union, Amnesty International, and United Nations rights agencies have also sent repeated requests to Colombo to reconsider its cremation policy.
According to former social empowerment minister Seyed Ali Zahir Mowlana, mounting pressure has prompted the government to appoint a committee to review the coronavirus cremation guidelines.
“Representations from the local community and organizations, coupled with a chain of requests from international bodies and overseas Lankans had prompted the government to appoint an 11-member expert committee to look into the matter,” he said.
However, as the country’s Supreme Court has dismissed 11 petitions filed by Muslims against the cremation rule, activists fear that the policy is not necessarily one informed by scientific considerations.
The College of Community Physicians of Sri Lanka (CCPSL) and the Sri Lanka Medical Association (SLMA) have said that based on available scientific information, burial could be permitted under strict guidelines. Most ministry experts argue, however, that cremation is the safe option to prevent the virus spread.
“All other countries have given an option for the burial of coronavirus-infected remains,” rights activist Muheed Jeeran said, “It is a glaring discrimination against the Muslim community in Sri Lanka.”
With Sri Lanka’s medical community supporting the burial of Covid-19 victims, there is no need for the government to continue with its cremation-only policy that discriminates against religious minorities, say human rights defenders including church leaders.
Sister Rasika Pieris, a member of the Sisters of the Holy Family congregation, said the policy is a sin against humanity.
“The government is deliberately disregarding a plea from a group of our citizens,” said Sister Pieris, who signed a petition with Christian bishops, priests, nuns and academics.
They signed the petition in solidarity with Muslims and Christians who have been forced to cremate their loved ones who were claimed by Covid-19.
“Medical bodies have also acknowledged the deep religious and cultural implications of the forcible cremation policy that has not only affected inter-community co-existence and reconciliation but can be an unwarranted public health issue, especially for affected groups,” said 118 human rights defenders and organizations in a statement on January 4.
Bishop Duleep de Chickera, Bishop Kumara Illangasinghe, former Anglican bishops, 11 Christian priests and four nuns and academics were among the signatories.
Several Buddhist organisations and monks recently marched in front of the presidential secretariat demanding that the government cremate all who have died of coronavirus.
The government’s tough decision has led to contrasting views among religious leaders.
Some Muslim families have refused to claim bodies of relatives since they were not allowed to bury their loved ones.
Buddhist monks have urged the government to cremate Covid-infected bodies, claiming such bodies will pollute the water supply.
According to the monks, the bodies should be cremated at a high temperature in the nearest crematorium without the participation of relatives and friends.
Sri Lanka made cremations compulsory for coronavirus victims in April, ignoring protests from the Muslim minority.
According to the gazette notification, the corpse should be cremated at a temperature of 800 to 1,200 degrees Celsius for a minimum period of 45 minutes for complete burning.
Many Muslim coronavirus victims were cremated against family wishes and Islamic traditions.
Some 198 countries around the world have acknowledged that there is no risk in burial and have allowed the choice of cremation or burial.