Sri Lanka’s Christian and Muslim minorities have been reported to be subjected to mandatory cremations of COVID-19 victims.
The Sri Lankan Health Ministry suddenly made cremations compulsory for victims of COVID-19. Having a majorly Buddhist population, this ruling has been seen to have an adverse effect on Muslim and Christian minorities, further marginalizing the small communities.
In early December 2020, there have been a disproportionate number of deaths coming from the Muslim community in Sri Lanka. Muslims have accounted for nearly half of the reported deaths despite being less than 10% of the Sri Lankan population. These victims of COVID-19 were then forcibly cremated. The cremation of these victims was carried out without the approval of the families. The family members of these victims, composed of both Muslim and Christian faiths, brought the case of forced cremation to the Supreme Court, yet the courts have refused to hear their case. The government then charged the families up to $3,000 for the cremation services, despite being forcibly enacted.
The act of cremation on a deceased person is not allowed in the Islamic funeral rites. Although there can be relaxation of some aspects of the funeral rites in emergencies (war, pandemic), the act of cremation is not allowed. The acts of Sri Lankan officials and government in forcing Muslim victims of COVID-19 to be cremated violates religious freedom laws and further marginalizes Sri Lankan religious minorities.
Government officials have responded to the issue, and have argued that burials of victims of COVID-19 could contaminate ground water. This argument is based on the words of a committee whose qualifications are unknown. BBC reports statements from Malik Peiris, a virologist, who questions the theory of the contamination.
He says, “COVID-19 is not a waterborne disease. And I haven’t seen any evidence to suggest it spreads through dead bodies. A virus can only multiply in a living cell. Once a person dies, the ability of the viruses to multiply decreases.”
Peiris also states that if a body is buried six feet underground, it is highly unlikely that it would contaminate running water.
Furthermore, there has been anti-Muslim sentiment brewing in Sri Lanka – Muslims have been repeatedly blamed for the spread of the virus in Sri Lanka. The Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), a Sinhalese Buddhist group, called for a ban on halal products and a boycott of Muslim owned-businesses.
Hilmy Ahamed, who is the vice president of the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka, stated, “The Muslim community sees this as a racist agenda of extremist Buddhist forces that seem to hold the government to ransom.”
A letter was sent to Naledi Pandor, South African Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, by Muslims groups in South Africa to advocate for interference in the matter. Many of these groups are arguing that forced cremations are a violation of “basic human dignity and international rights of religious freedom.”
In addition to the efforts of South African Muslim groups, there have been protests in front of the Sri Lankan embassy in London, urging the government to stop the forced cremations.
The government’s policy of forced cremation has only served to increase anti-Muslim sentiment, and create religious division. The government of Sri Lanka should follow international law and suggestions by health organizations. This is a blatant disregard for the country’s religious minorities.