In a stunning reversal of policy the Sri Lankan Prime Minister has told Parliament that Muslim coronavirus victims will be allowed burial rights.
Mahinda Rajapaksa gave the assurance on Wednesday in response to a question from a lawmaker.
The U-turn came after a global outcry over the government’s mandatory cremation policy for COVID-19 victims.
Since March 2019 Sri Lanka has made compulsory the cremation of all people who die from COVID-19, saying the virus in human remains could contaminate underground water.
Muslims and non-Muslims have protested against the rule, calling it unscientific and insensitive of religious beliefs.
The United Nations also raised concerns with the government. The World Health Organization and Sri Lankan doctors’ groups have said COVID-19 victims can either be buried or cremated.
Sri Lanka is a predominantly Buddhist country where it is customary for Buddhists and Hindus, the second-largest religious group, to cremate the dead.
Muslim lawmaker Rishard Bathiudeen said while he was happy with Rajapaksa’s assurance, the government should implement it by withdrawing the compulsory cremation rule.
“Many people have been cremated before and their families are living in great agony. I am happy that they showed some compassion even at this stage, but it has to be implemented soon because people are dying every day,” said Bathiudeen.
In their latest note, UN experts said the practice ran contrary to the beliefs of Muslims and other minority communities in Sri Lanka, and could “foment existing prejudices, intolerance and violence.”
“While we must be alert to the serious public health challenges posed by the pandemic, COVID-19 measures must respect and protect the dignity of the dead, their cultural and religious traditions or beliefs, and their families throughout,” the UN experts said in January.
Sri Lanka has reported 71,211 coronavirus cases, including 370 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University.
Muslims account for about 10 percent of Sri Lanka’s population of 21 million and have had a strained relationship with the majority Sinhala Buddhists, deteriorating in the years after the end of civil war in 2009 during which hardline Buddhist groups were blamed for several attacks against Muslim businesses and places of worship.
Following the Easter attacks in April 2019 that killed more than 250 people, Muslims have faced increased hostility from the Sinhala majority.