Fury in Sri Lanka over cremation of Muslim COVID-19 victims

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Muslims in Sri Lanka are furious over the forced cremation of a 20-day-old Coronavirus (COVID-19) victim last week against the family’s wishes, the latest in more than a dozen of 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.

On 9 December baby Shaykh was forcibly cremated in a cemetery in Borella, the largest suburb of Sri Lanka’s capital, Colombo -the youngest among 15 Muslims to be cremated, thereby denying them Islamic funeral rites.

Shaykh’s father,  MFM Fahim told Al Jazeera he could not gather the courage to witness the burning of his infant son’s body.

“I told them that I cannot go into a place where they are burning my baby. My friends and family asked the authorities how they can go ahead with the cremation when neither of the parents had signed any document giving consent.

“They said because the baby is a COVID-19 positive patient, they can cremate. It is as if they rushed to cremate our baby. When we asked questions, they didn’t have any proper answers.

“We would have had some comfort if they had allowed us to bury him instead of cremating him by force. That is what is unbearable,” Fahim said.

Muslims and Christians bury the dead. But Sri Lanka’s mandatory cremation policy for those infected with COVID-19 has left minority communities feeling helpless and angry.

“It is a communal decision they took. The government wants to hurt the feelings of minorities. They are violating WHO guidelines and basic human rights,” Azath Salley, leader of the National Unity Alliance (NUA) and former governor of the Western Province, told Al Jazeera.

“They did not even spare a child who was only 20 days old. To add to the family’s sorrow, they were even asked by the government to pay (approximately $300) to cover the costs of cremation,” he said.

Salley urged the international community to put pressure on the Sri Lankan government to “respect the beliefs of the minorities and to allow them to bury their dead”.

The Sri Lankan health authorities say the bodies of COVID-19 victims will contaminate the groundwater if they are buried.

On 4 November, the government appointed an expert committee to reassess the mandatory cremation policy. In its report submitted on 22 November, the committee reaffirmed the policy without citing any reasons.

When the Muslim and Christian groups petitioned the country’s Supreme Court, citing the right to bury according to rituals as a fundamental right, the court on 1 December dismissed their concerns.

Muslims, who make up nearly 10 per cent of Sri Lanka’s 21 million people, have faced increased attacks from majority Sinhala Buddhist hardliners following the end of a civil war between Tamil separatists and government forces in 2009.

Relations between the two communities deteriorated further after deadly church attacks on Easter Sunday in April last year, claimed by the ISIL (ISIS) group.

‘Bodies piling up’

Meanwhile, anguished Muslim families are refusing to pay the fee demanded by the state to cover the costs of cremations in protest against the policy.

Last week, among the bodies of Muslim coronavirus victims at a Colombo morgue, was the body of Mohammad Jeffrey, 76, who died on 26 November.

His nephew Mohammed Farook Mohammed Ashraff still does not know if his uncle was eventually cremated. “We didn’t go after that to the morgue, so we don’t know what happened,”.

“As per our religion, Islam, cremating bodies is prohibited. Therefore we can’t accept what they are doing. So we did not give our consent,” Ashraff said. “I told them to keep the body and do whatever they want.”

Several protests were reported across northeastern Sri Lanka this month against the forced cremations, with many tying white ribbons to the gates of the crematorium as a sign of their anger.

Many others protested online, claiming that Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa was using the pandemic to marginalise Sri Lanka’s minorities, especially Muslims.

Rights group Amnesty International also released a statement, saying the government should ensure all Sri Lankans are “treated equitably”.

“COVID-19 does not discriminate on grounds of ethnic, political, or religious differences, and nor should the Government of Sri Lanka,” it said.

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