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Covid-19: Muslims cremated in Sri Lanka against WHO guidelines

24th Apr 2020

Nadine Osman

The Sri Lankan Government has been condemned for forcibly cremating Muslim victims of the Covid-19 in a move branded “incendiary” and a “complete disregard” to World Health Organization guidelines.

The forced cremation of two Covid-19 infected Muslims in Sri Lanka sent shock waves among the minority community, which accused the authorities of needlessly rejecting the right to an Islamic burial rites.

On March 31 the country’s Ministry of Health reversed an earlier directive that was in line with WHO guidelines allowing burial and instead ruled cremation as the only method of disposing bodies.

Two of the first four people to die of the virus on the Island were Muslims, both were cremated against family wishes and guidelines by WHO that permits burials.

The Government failed to provide “adequate or reasonable justification” for departing from WHO guidelines is an indication says Amnesty International that “the change was not necessary to protect public health.”

A sentiment echoed by Hilmy Ahamed, VP of Muslim Council of Sri Lanka. He said, “The guidelines issued by the WHO is practised by Britain, most of the European countries, Singapore, Hong Kong and all the Muslim nations.”

“The Muslim community sees this as a racist agenda of extremist Buddhist forces that seem to hold the Government to ransom.”

The first death of a Muslim in Sri Lanka – in Negombo, a western coastal town – was hours before national guidelines were revised to exclude burials. Despite protests by the relatives of the deceased, community leaders and Muslim politicians, the burial was blocked by the authorities and cremation took pla\ce instead.

The second death of a Muslim happened on April 1 at the National Institute of Infectious Diseases. Bishrul Hafi Mohammed Joonus, 73, from the capital Colombo was cremated the following day later despite efforts by his family and members.

“My father was taken in a vehicle under the supervision of the police force and was cremated. If there is an option of burial, our Government should accommodate. Cremation is not the only option. We want to bury our loved ones as per the Islamic way,” said Bishrul’s son Fayaz Joonus.

Amnesty called on the authorities to “respect the right of religious minorities to carry out the final rites” according to their traditions. “At this difficult time, the authorities should be bringing communities together and not deepening divisions between them.”

Amnesty’s South Asia Director, Biraj Patnaik, said, “Grieving relatives of people who have died because of Covid-19 should be able to bid farewell to their loved ones in the way that they wish, especially where this is permissible under international guidelines.”

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