Sri Lanka Reverses Forced Cremation Order: A Big Relief to Island Muslims

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Srilankan Muslim protest against forced cremation in London

Pakistan PM, Amnesty International welcome lifting of ban on burials; it had become major human rights issue with UNHRC and OIC expressing concern

Team Clarion

NEW DELHI – Sri Lankan government’s decision to reverse its one-year-old order of forced cremation for Covid-19 victims has come as a big relief for Muslims of that country. The decision has come following a much-publicised visit to Sri Lanka by Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan this past week.

Khan, who was in Sri Lanka on February 23-24, has welcomed the decision. “I thank the Sri Lankan leadership & welcome the Sri Lankan govt’s official notification allowing the burial option for those dying of Covid 19,” tweeted Khan.

The ban had become a major human rights issue with several world agencies calling on Colombo to reverse it. The government had imposed the ban on burials in April last year amid concerns — which experts say are baseless — by influential Buddhist monks that burying bodies could contaminate groundwater and spread the virus.

The United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), as well as by Muslim, Catholic and some Buddhist community leaders criticised the move. The World Health Organisation (WHO) also said that there was no risk of contamination, and recommended both the burial and cremation of those who died of Covid-19.

Traditionally, Muslims bury their dead facing Qibla in Makkah. Sri Lanka’s majority Buddhists, who are strong backers of the current government, are typically cremated, as are Hindus.

In December, the Sri Lankan authorities ordered the forced cremation of at least 19 Muslim Covid-19 victims, including a baby, after their families refused to claim their bodies from a hospital morgue.

Muslim community leaders in Sri Lanka accused the move as being an extension of the state’s persecution of Muslims. The 57-member Organisation of Islamic Cooperation also expressed concern.

During Pak premier’s visit the Sri Lankan Muslim leaders were allowed to meet him after the opportunity was denied to them initially.

Press Trust of India had quoted Rauff Hakeem, leader of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, as saying that that Muslims had a pleasant and fruitful discussion with Khan. According to reports, Khan was under pressure from local Muslim leaders to raise the issue of forced cremations of Muslim. Khan on his part urged the host country’s government to respect the sentiment of Muslim community.

The Pakistani press has given its leader. Leading English daily The Dawn noted: “Prime Minister Imran Khan, it has now been reported, spoke to the Sri Lankan president and prime minister on the matter during his recent visit and urged them to respect the sentiments of the Muslims. It was primarily due to the prime minister’s persuasion that the Sri Lankan government decided to lift the ban and allow Muslims to fulfil their religious requirements. The news has made international headlines. Mr Khan deserves praise for taking this initiative and resolving an issue that was deeply troubling for Muslims in another country”.

There were some people on social media who also lauded Khan for this.

However, human rights groups say that the forced cremation has been reversed due to human rights activists and victims’ family members’ persistent efforts.

Yamini Mishra, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific Director, said: “This is a long overdue but welcome move by the Sri Lankan authorities. Forced cremations, which should never have been carried out in the first place, have denied the Muslim community the right to say goodbye to loved ones in accordance with their religious beliefs. The ending of this cruel practice, which has not been scientifically proven to prevent the spread of the virus, allows Sri Lanka’s Muslim minority a dignified burial in line with Islamic burial rites. The decision is a testament to the tireless struggle of families of victims, activists, and members of the Muslim community”.

According to the BBC, Sri Lanka now expects Pakistan’s support at the 46th regular session of the UNHRC, which is currently taking place virtually and lasts until March 23. Five years ago, Sri Lanka had committed at the UNHRC to conduct a time-bound investigation of war crimes that took place during the military campaign against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Sri Lanka now faces another resolution at the current session.

The draft resolution is based on a damning report by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (UN Human Rights) that was submitted to the Human Rights Council on January 27.

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