UN official urges Sri Lanka to let Muslims bury their dead

Ahmed Shaheed

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief has urged Sri Lanka’s President, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, to allow Muslims to bury their dead.

In a letter to the President, Ahmed Shaheed also urged Rajapaksa to stop media outlets from inciting hatred against Muslims.

He said: “In view of the challenges posed by the pandemic it is important that the Government avoids any unnecessary measures that are likely to raise tension and are running contrary to the respect of the fundamental human rights of the persons belonging to different communities that exist in Sri Lanka.

“Arbitrary decisions concerning the disposal of bodies of victims of the COVID-19 may also have the opposite effect to provoking the reluctance of families and communities to report COVID-19 cases in fear that they may be unable ensure proper funeral or burial rites for their loved ones. Ideally, such provisions should be revised in consultation with all the concerned ethnic and religious communities and other relevant health experts and stakeholders.”

Shaheed added: “We are taking the opportunity to stress that it is equally important that your Excellency’s Government firmly condemn any attempt by anyone, irrespective of status, to issue or spread hate messages that are of a nature to instigate ethnic or religious tensions or violence, including through accusations or blame that any particular ethnic or religious community is responsible for the pandemic of COVID-19.”

On March 31 Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Health issued guidelines for coronavirus victims including that:

  • The body should never be washed under any circumstance.
  • The body has to be placed in a sealed body bag and a coffin.
  • Exclusive cremation.
  • The disposal of bodies must be monitored by police, Ministry of Health and Public Health Inspector.

But in his letter Shaheed said the cremation-only policy runs contrary to World Health Organization guidelines which stipulate that coronavirus dead can be buried or cremated.

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“We are concerned that the amendment is inconsistent with the Infection Prevention and Control for the safe management of a dead body in the context of COVID-19 guideline provided by World Health Organisation (WHO Guideline). Furthermore, we are concerned of the lack of consideration provided and the lack of sensitivity in the MoH Guideline to different communities and their religious and cultural practices,” he said.

Nevertheless, authorities in Sri Lanka have insisted they will continue cremating the bodies of coronavirus victims, including Muslims, despite protests from members of the community.

As of Sunday the South Asian nation had registered seven deaths from the coronavirus, of which three were Muslims who were forcibly cremated.

Pavithra Wanniarachchi, Sri Lanka’s Minister of Health, said on Sunday: “The corpse of a person who has died or is suspected to have died, of… COVID-19 shall be cremated.”

Sri Lankan officials have justified the policy by saying that burials take longer than cremations, and the country’s groundwater levels are too high thereby heightening the risk of infection spreading.

Tensions between Muslims and the majority Buddhist Sinhalese population came to a head in Easter 2019 after local “jihadists” were accused of suicide bombings at three hotels and three churches that killed 279 people.

Weeks later, Sinhalese mobs attacked Muslims, killing one and wounded dozens more. Hundreds of homes and vehicles were destroyed and the authorities were accused of failing to stop the violence – a charge denied by Colombo.

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