As the world enters a new year, and one in which many will be hoping to see the back of the COVID-19 pandemic, Sri Lanka’s Muslim community will surely be hoping that promising vaccines are also enough to bring an end to a policy which has violated a core tenet of their Islamic faith.
Since 31 March 2020, Sri Lankan government guidance has required all victims of COVID-19 to be cremated. This practice goes against the tradition of the Muslim community and infringes on their right to manifest their religion or belief, as protected under Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).
Under Islamic law, a deceased Muslim should be buried in an individual grave, and the dignity of the dead must be preserved at all times. Cremation is prohibited ‘because it is considered a violation of the dignity of the human body.’ In addition, as the burying of the dead is considered a collective obligation, known as Fard Kifaya, the entire Muslim community is guilty if they fail this communal duty.
‘As a Muslim in this country, I’m more afraid of being cremated after death (due to corona) than the actual dying itself.’
Tweet by Yamin Ahmed, a Sri Lankan Muslim.
An unnecessary and disproportionate response
Under Article 18 (3) of the ICCPR, the right to manifest your religion or belief can be limited only ‘to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.’ However, limitations must follow four rules; it is provided for in law, it is necessary to protect others, it is non-discriminatory, and it is proportionate to the problem. In the case of forcible cremations, this response is neither necessary to protect others, nor proportionate to the problem.
Guidelines issued by the World Health Organisation (WHO), Infection Prevention and Control for the safe management of a dead body in the context of COVID-19, state that a body may be cremated or buried, but crucially do not advocate for one approach over the other. Furthermore, the WHO’s guidelines allow for family and friends to view the body, and state that ‘the dignity of the dead, their cultural and religious traditions, and their families should be respected and protected throughout.’
In April 2020, four UN Special Rapporteurs criticised the Sri Lankan Ministry of Health’s decision regarding cremation. They argued that it breached Article 18(3) of the ICCPR, as less restrictive measures [proportionality] are still available, such as the burying of victims with certain procedures. The rapporteurs further argued that the guidelines were also in violation of Article 27 of the ICCPR, and the 1992 Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National, Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities.
On 12 November 2020, the UN Resident Coordinator wrote to Prime Minister Rajapaksa expressing her ‘hope that the existing policy be revised so as to allow the safe and dignified burial of Covid-19 victims.’ The Independent Permanent Human Rights Commission of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation has also expressed deep concerns.
A wider narrative
Dr Sugath Samaraweera, the Sri Lankan Government’s Chief Epidemiologist told media that burials could contaminate groundwater. Whilst Dr Channa Perera, Consultant Forensic Pathologist attached to the Ministry of Health, was quoted by the BBC as stating that the ‘government has nothing against Muslims but they have a small fear about whether the virus can be used for unauthorised activities. Maybe an unwanted person could get access to a body and it could be used as a biological weapon.’ These are concerns not shared by the majority of the world’s countries, which still allow burials to take place albeit with restrictions in place, such as limiting the number of people in attendance.
In a leaked government report, the recommendations by a committee of experts noted that there was no evidence that transmission would take place by cadavers being in contact with water on the ground. The 11-member panel of experts was set up by the Ministry of Health on 24 December 2020. However, hard-line Buddhist monks have rejected the recommendations and continue to call for cremation as a solution.
Muslims who have called for burials to be allowed have been portrayed by some sections of the media as ‘unpatriotic’ and ‘selfish,’ feeding into a wider narrative propagated by Sinhalese-Buddhist nationalists that the Muslim community does not care about the majority Sinhalese-Buddhist community and Sri Lanka, the island many Sri Lankans believe consecrated by Buddha. This portrayal ignores challenges to the cremation order in the Supreme Court by non-Muslims such as Oshala Lakmal and Ranmal Anthony Amerasinghe, both of whom are Catholics.
Throughout the coronavirus pandemic both Christians and Muslims have been blamed by religious hardliners as vectors of the disease on social media and by mainstream news outlets and figures in Sri Lanka. This has fuelled a rise in hate speech towards religious minorities which has largely gone unchecked by state authorities.
The government of Sri Lanka must respect its obligation under international law to protect the right to manifest one’s religion or belief, and take steps to check false narratives surrounding the coronavirus which is leading to a double anguish in the country’s minority communities.
By CSW’s Asia Team Leader and CSW’s Advocacy and Projects Officer
Featured Image: Jami Ul-Alfar Mosque In Colombo, Sri Lanka via Unsplash.
 Article 27: ‘In those States in which ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities exist, persons belonging to such minorities shall not be denied the right, in community with the other members of their group, to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practise their own religion, or to use their own language.’