Sri Lanka Government Forces Muslims To Cremate COVID-19 Victims

The Sri Lankan government sparked outrage amongst the Muslim community this month after the cremation of two COVID-19 victims.

Bishrul Hafi Mohammed Joonus, a 73-year-old man from Colombo, tested positive for COVID-19 and died on April 1st due to complications related to a kidney disorder. He was cremated the following day against his family’s wishes. ​Although they were able to perform prayers outside of the morgue, the​ family was unable to perform the Janazah, a traditional ​Muslim funeral prayer part of the Islamic funeral ritual.

“The government needs to make arrangements for us Muslims to be able to bury our loved ones in accordance with our Islamic burial rites,” Fayaz Joonus, ​Bishrul Hafi Mohammed Joonus’ son,​ told Al Jazeera. “We want to bury our loved ones as per the Islamic way.”

On Tuesday, Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Health reversed an earlier guideline that allowed for the traditional Muslim burials of Muslim COVID-19 victims. The new guidelines state the standard procedure for disposing of bodies should be cremation. The guidelines also state the body should not be washed or placed in a sealed bag and coffin, which prevents the Islamic practice of washing the body. These guidelines directly contradict those of the World Health Organization, which allows for either burial or cremation of victims.

“The Muslim community sees this as a racist agenda of extremist Buddhist forces that seem to hold the government to ransom,” Hilmy Ahamed, vice president of Muslim Council of Sri Lanka, told Al Jazeera.

Four of the 151 people diagnosed with COVID-19 have died in Sri Lanka, the island country that lies off the southern tip of India, two of them being in the Muslim minority. Muslims make up only about 10 percent of the 21 million population. The majority of the population is made up of Sinhala Buddhists.

The tension between the Muslims and Sinhala Buddhists of Sri Lanka has grown in the last decade since the end of the 2009 civil war. During the war, some Buddhist groups were blamed for attacks against Muslim businesses and places of worship.

Muslims have faced an increase in hostility from the Sinhala majority after the April 2019 suicide bombings that killed more than 250 people. The bombings targeted hotels and churches and were attributed to a radical Muslim organization.

Human rights organization Amnesty International has asked authorities in Sri Lanka to “respect the right of religious minorities to carry out the final rites” according to their traditions. In addition to the cremations, anti-Islamic sentiments have increased as the media has been accused of blaming Muslims for the spread of the virus.

“At this difficult time, the authorities should be bringing communities together and not deepening divisions between them,” Biraj Patnaik, South Asia director at Amnesty International said in a statement.

In the midst of this global pandemic, it is extremely alarming to see anti-Muslim rhetoric and guidelines being spread throughout Sri Lanka. When the world is busy trying to fight the spread of this deadly disease, government officials should not be busy trying to suppress the religious freedoms of its minority populations.

“This is a national and global emergency shared by all humans, and not a time highlighting our cultural divisions. The coronavirus does not care about our ethnic or religious differences. We need to fear the virus— not each other— and unite in containing and battling the disease,” media analyst Nalaka Gunawadenne told Al Jazeera.

If the Sri Lanka government continues to disregard the religious wishes of its minority Muslim community, it is only reasonable to expect that unrest will mount between the Muslim and Sinhala Buddhist populations.

Taylor Linzinmeir