Earlier in November, the last three recorded deaths of COVID-19 in Sri Lanka, all of Muslims, had seen the bodies cremated for disposal by governmental authorities. These were not the first, and despite many attempts to stop it from further happening, won’t be the last to be disposed of in a manner prohibited by their religion, all in the name of public health. According to the country’s Muslim community, the government is using the coronavirus as an excuse to discriminate and add to the suffering of the minorities.
The practice of cremation had been taking place in Sri Lanka since the start of May, a violation of both the religious and emotional sentiments of the people who had lost loved ones to COVID-19. After months of trauma and in search of justice, minority groups filed a petition against the unending discriminatory pattern by authorities in July. Much to their dismay, the Supreme Court blatantly threw out the case as a result of the country’s mandatory cremation policy for dead bodies that are suspected to have been infected with the novel virus.
Cremation is prohibited in Islam. The practice is considered a violation of the dignity of the human body, making it a direct clash with teachings of the faith. The Buddhist-majority nation initially agreed to let Muslims bury their own in accordance with their religious practices. However, these inconsiderate amendments were made on April 11, depriving the nearly 10% of the total Muslim population of their basic religious right.
The Sri Lankan authorities have also denied any accusations of discrimination against Muslims, maintaining that the cremation order applied to other religious groups as well, including minority Christians. The government’s chief epidemiologist, Dr. Sugath Samaraweera said that it was the Sri Lankan government’s policy to cremate all those of either die from the virus or are suspected of having infected from it. According to the authorities, burials could contaminate ground drinking water. They only intend to do what is best for the people, regardless of religious differences.
In light of the rule proposed by the local authorities, a senior Muslim leader of the Sri Lankan Muslim Congress Party, Ali Zahir Moulana said that the Muslim community would accept this rule, despite religious obligations and belief system, if there were enough scientific evidence to prove that the act of burying the dead underground caused harm to the health of the living. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), people who die of the coronavirus can either be buried or cremated. There was no mention of the burial causing harm to the living or affecting their health by contaminating the groundwater, whatsoever.
The Buddhist majority nation’s cremations policy disregards the religious beliefs of minorities such as Muslims and Christians living in the county for centuries now – dead bodies should be buried six feet under the ground and not cremated as they are done in other religions, including Buddhism and Hinduism. In Islam, specifically, Muslims believe that to cremate the dead is equivalent of making them rot in hell which is considered as a punishment in the hereafter from God.
The story of religious hatred and injustice goes far beyond the affected bodies of Coronavirus patients being cremated. Muslims in the region believe that they have been demonized since April last year when a local group of Islamists started targeting Churches in the east side of the country. Another thing that has increased this outrage is irresponsible reporting by a few local media outlets, which were quick to blame the spread of Coronavirus in Colombo onto the Muslim population after the death of a Sri Lankan Muslim patient in March. According to the BBC’s story, many cases that were reported to be cremated by the Sri Lankan authorities were not tested positive of having the virus.
As per recent data by TRT World, Sri Lanka has had more than 25,000 cases of Covid-19 and 124 deaths, including more than 50 Muslims who were cremated. Despite the interim guidelines by the WHO and several efforts by Muslim activists to stop the act of cremation of dead bodies of their own, the Sri Lankan government has turned a blind eye and a deaf ear to the minorities concerns.
The issue has been raised by many human rights organizations, including the Independent Permanent Human Rights Commission (IPHRC) of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion and Belief, the Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International calling it inhumane and urging the Sinhalese government to respect burial rights of its Muslim minority.
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