Sri Lanka will begin giving permission for Muslims who die of COVID-19 to be buried following an outcry over the government’s decision to cremate all those who died of coronavirus.
Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa gave the assurance on Wednesday in response to a question from a lawmaker in Parliament.
Sri Lanka 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 over the past year, calling it unscientific and insensitive of Muslim 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.
UN special rapporteurs have twice called on Sri Lanka’s government to reconsider its policy in letters sent to authorities in January this year and last April.
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.
Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch, told Al Jazeera that the organisation was “very relieved that the government of Sri Lanka appears finally to have heard what experts have been saying all along”.
“While many believe that this decision is to ward off further criticism during the upcoming session of the UN Human Rights Council, we hope that the government will make public statements discouraging the stigmatisation of Muslims in Sri Lanka and will announce reforms to end discrimination,” said Ganguly.
Sri Lanka has reported 71,211 coronavirus cases, including 370 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University.
Critics of PM Rajapaksa have accused his government of using the pandemic to marginalise Muslims.
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.
A little-known Muslim organisation was blamed for the island nation’s worst attack since the civil war fought between the government forces and the Tamil separatist fighters.