Sri Lanka finally lifts ban on burial of COVID victims

Controversial ban imposed since March last year lifted after months of protests by Muslim and rights groups.

Sri Lankan municipal workers carry a body of a COVID-19 victim for cremation in Colombo [File: Eranga Jayawardena/AP]

The Sri Lankan government has lifted a controversial ban on the burial of bodies of people whose deaths were caused by the COVID-19 disease, a health ministry spokesman said.

The ban was lifted on Friday after months of protests mainly by Muslim groups and international pressure.

In March last year, the government imposed regulations that said the bodies of COVID-19 victims could only be cremated.

The rules banned burial, saying the virus could spread by contaminating groundwater.

But Muslim groups insisted the government’s decision had no scientific base and wanted the ban lifted as cremating a body went against their Islamic faith.

On Wednesday, Muslim parliamentarians urged Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan who was visiting the country to take up the issue with the Sri Lankan political leaders.

In response to the policy change, Khan thanked his Sri Lankan counterparts.

“I… welcome the Sri Lankan govt’s official notification allowing the burial option for those dying of Covid 19,” he said on Twitter.

After the 57-member Organisation of Islamic Cooperation raised the forced cremation policy at the at the Human Rights Council in Geneva this week, the chairperson of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), Michelle Bachelet, referred to the issue in a statement on Wednesday.

“The policy of forced cremation of COVID-19 victims has caused pain and distress to the minority Muslim and Christian communities,” she said.

Muslim groups on Tuesday also held a large protest outside the president’s office calling for the ban on the burials to be lifted.

The World Health Organization and Sri Lankan doctors’ groups had said COVID-19 victims can either be buried or cremated.

Sri Lanka has witnessed 459 deaths due to the coronavirus, with more than 82,000 people testing positive since January last year.

The island nation is a predominantly Buddhist country where it is customary for Buddhists and Hindus, the second-largest religious group, to cremate the dead.

Muslims, who traditionally bury their dead facing Mecca in Saudi Arabia, account for about 10 percent of the country’s population of 21 million.

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

Muslim community leaders say more than half the country’s 459 COVID-19 victims were from the Muslim minority.

They attribute the disproportionate number of fatalities to a fear of seeking treatment, and in particular, to the fear of being cremated should they die of the disease.

Source: News Agencies