In Sri Lanka, forced cremation is a unique epidemiological shock


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At the crematorium, a few relatives cried while chanting the funeral prayer, and they were overcome by the loss of the child and the added trauma of not being able to bury him according to Islamic tradition, and the compulsory cremation policy was a concern to them. Muslims and Christians, both are religious minorities in a predominantly Buddhist country. More than 200 Muslim coronavirus victims have been cremated, according to the Islamic Council of Sri Lanka. The total death toll in the country has reached 384. “We are forced to go through this shock,” said Nias, 39, a painter who has not worked for months. He described the government’s policy as painful and unfair, but felt powerless to challenge it. Rehan Jayawikrem, a local politician, said he tried to mediate on behalf of the family to stop the cremation of the child’s body, but the police told him they had to follow orders, and human rights groups urged the Sri Lankan government to end the policy. UN experts said last month that the forced burning of Covid-19 victims amounts to a “human rights violation” that persecutes Muslims and other minorities. Epidemic control measures “must respect and protect the dignity of the dead.” After facing mounting criticism from abroad, Sri Lanka’s prime minister appeared to signal in Parliament on Wednesday that the country would allow the burial of COVID-19 victims. But the Minister of State for Health informed the Legislative Council on Thursday that such a decision would revert to a technical committee appointed by the government. The official notification implementing the cremation policy remains in effect. The Minister of State for Health and Prevention of Coronavirus, Sudarshini Fernandopol, did not respond to requests for comment and written questions about the policy, while many countries have placed restrictions on how funerals are held, it appears that Lanka is the only country that has banned burials throughout the epidemic and made cremation mandatory for all Covid victims – 19, regardless of their religion. Pfizer Mustafa, the lead advisor to a petition challenging politics before the country’s Supreme Court, said. “If there is no scientific basis, then it must be said that it is discriminatory.” Muslims make up about 10 percent of Sri Lanka’s population of over 20 million. In the wake of the 2019 attacks by Islamic extremists that left nearly 300 people dead, the Muslim community was exposed to violence, economic boycotts and conspiracy theories, and Gotabaya Rajapaksa was elected as president – a leader whose support comes from the Buddhist majority. – It raised concerns about the future of religious minorities in the country. In December, the government asked a panel of experts composed of nine Sri Lankan microbiologists and virologists to reconsider policies regarding the disposal of the bodies of Covid-19 victims. A copy of their final report, which has not been publicly released, has been reviewed by The Washington Post. They recommended reviewing the policy “to include both cremation and burial.” The government ignored the recommendation. Two members of the committee, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of public criticism and backlash from the government, said they were horrified that their findings had no effect. One member said, “The scientific evidence does not conflict with the government’s agenda.” Muslims who lost relatives to COVID-19 in Sri Lanka described a rush by police and health officials to burn the bodies of their loved ones. Many say they have not received a copy of the results showing their family members have tested positive for the coronavirus, and that hospital officials have rejected their pleas for a second test. Fatma Shakila, a 50-year-old mother of three, died on December 14 at a hospital in Humagama, outside the capital Colombo, after she tested positive for the Coronavirus. Her husband, MRL Nihmathulla, said hospital officials told him that they would keep the body so that he and his sons could see it one last time after completing the mandatory quarantine, however, once the period ended, he called the hospital and learned that he said the wife’s body had already been cremated. He asked her to practice the ashes “the last rite, even this way,” but said he was told it was too late to receive her. Janitha Hitarachi, the hospital director, said he did not remember Shakila’s condition and did not respond to written follow-up questions. Nemat Allah said that the couple’s youngest son is 10 years old and “is still asking about his mother.” Ananda Jalapati, a medical anthropologist in Sri Lanka, said Muslims are being denied important mechanisms for dealing with grief. He said: “Cremation is a violation of the belief, traditions and obligation towards the deceased.” Jalapati added that concerns surrounding cremation would make people less likely to report symptoms and get tested. “In Islam, God decides when we have to go,” said Hilmi Ahmed, vice president of the Islamic Council of Sri Lanka. But now, Muslims in Sri Lanka are “suspicious of death, because we do not want to cremate our bodies.” Ahmed said that people stay away from hospitals even if they are sick, and it has been nearly a year since Muhammad Faiz Junus took his 73-year-old father to hospital, where doctors said he had tested positive for the Coronavirus. Junus helplessly watched as the doctors failed to resuscitate him. The next day, his father’s body was cremated without family permission and Junus went straight from the crematorium to quarantine for 14 days. Junus said his father was the rock of the extended family, always ready with advice and encouragement. Now there is no grave to visit, and no place to go to honor his father’s life on major religious holidays, as is customary. “He didn’t deserve this kind of death,” said Junus. It is believed that the forced burning policy is the product of discrimination against Muslims. He said, “I love this country.” “But after this incident, I don’t feel like I’m in Sri Lanka.” According to Slater from New Delhi and Fonseca from Colombo, Sri Lanka. Amrutta Pyatnal of New Delhi contributed to this report.


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