Coronavirus: Muslims in Sri Lanka forced to cremate dead, stigmatized under lockdown

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Muslims in Sri Lanka are being forced to cremate their relatives in violation of their faith, according to rights groups who have warned that the government is stigmatizing the country’s Muslim minority during the coronavirus lockdown.

Cremations are traditional for the country’s Sinhalese-Buddhist majority, but Islamic tradition requires its dead to be buried. The World Health Organization has allowed both burials and cremation for coronavirus victims.

But on April 11, the Sri Lankan government made cremations compulsory for all victims of the virus, becoming the only country in the world to do so.

The ban comes as the country prepares for the first anniversary of the Easter bombings, in which an Islamist terror group targeted churches and hotels, killing 257 people, most of them Christians. Sri Lanka’s Muslim minority has been subjected to growing harassment and demonization since the devastating attack.

“The fact that no other country has banned burials tells you how nasty things are [for Muslims in Sri Lanka right now],” said Alan Keenan, the country director for Crisis Group.

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The victims and their families

Sri Lanka entered a nationwide lockdown on 21 March. Over 270 cases of the virus have been confirmed, resulting in seven deaths.

Three Muslims have been cremated so far, causing enormous grievance to their families. Speaking from a quarantine center in the eastern city of Batticaloa, Fayaz Joonus, the son of a recent victim, told Al Arabiya English about his father’s death and cremation. “When we were told he would be cremated, I had to familiarize myself with the procedure. I didn’t even know where to buy a coffin,“ he said.

The next morning, Yoonus was allowed to visit his father’s body at the morgue with his brother and brother-in-law, and perform prayers before the cremation. “Outside, a judicial medical officer asked me in front of the media if I objected to the cremation, ” he said, “I was so tired and overwhelmed by what was happening, I didn’t know how to respond. I told them I gave my consent.” The interview appeared on two Sinhalese state-run television channels, he added.

But the first Muslim victim was cremated without his family’s knowledge. “At the time of cremation, his son was being questioned by the criminal investigations department for allegedly spreading the virus when he took his father to a private hospital,” said Shreen Saroor, a rights activist who is in contact with the affected families.

A pandemic lockdown in an unconstitutional moment

The decision to ban burials came despite an ongoing petition from Sri Lankan lawyers, scientific advisers and doctors. It has also ignored an April 8 letter from UN Special Rapporteurs, that “prohibiting burial would not be permissible according to ICCPR,” a covenant which protects right to freedom of thought and religion.

Many fear an irreversible encroachment on the country’s fragile democracy. Just weeks before the lockdown was announced, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa dissolved parliament and assumed all decision-making powers.

The military and intelligence services have been called in to assist the health sector in tracing coronavirus victims. “Immediately after my father died I was getting calls from public health officers and the military,” said Joonus, “By the time I was home a few hours later, the military were outside, ready to take my family to quarantine centers.“

“There’s a looming intrusion into privacy and a disproportionate glorification of armed force activity,” said Rauff Hakeem, leader of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress and a former cabinet minister.

State-backed disinformation

The ban on burials is compounded by disinformation on Sinhalese media, which has attributed the spread of the coronavirus in Sri Lanka to Muslims. On 9 April, a public health inspector, Upul Rohana told a state-run Sinhalese television channel that recent cases identified in Muslim villages had led to the cancellation of Sinhala New Year celebrations.

A recent WhatsApp video message from a Sinhalese-Buddhist monk, seen by Al Arabiya English, mentions a village where two Muslims have caught the virus and warned people to stay indoors.

“These are visible attempts to ostracize Muslims and portray them as insufficiently law-abiding spreaders of the disease,” said Hakim. “Muslims are becoming untouchables” added Saroor.

In early April, a Sinhalese popstar, Iraj Weeraratne, shared a false claim on Twitter that the ruler of Sharjah, Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed al Qasimi, had banned burials in his emirate.

The pick-up from local Sri Lankan media and hardline Sinhalese-Buddhist nationalists was so extensive that it prompted a response from the UAE’s embassy in Colombo. “It is shocking that this news item has been manipulated and maliciously interpreted […] in a manner that could incite racism towards the Muslims of Sri Lanka,” said an official statement published on 6 April.

An election campaign based on anti-Muslim sentiment

Critics say that the ruling Rajapaksa family are capitalizing on anti-Muslim sentiment ahead of the Easter bombings anniversary for their own political gain.

Elections initially scheduled for late April have been postponed by the lockdown. “The ban on burials is a political move, with parliamentary elections round the corner,” said Mujibur Rahman, a politician with the main opposition party, the United National Party.

On April 15, a prominent Sri Lankan lawyer, Hijaz Hizbullah, was arrested and detained on suspicion of unlawful connections to the Easter bombing terrorists. Hizbullah had challenged the dissolution of parliament and questioned the legality of Rajapaksa’s presidency.

“It is a political witch hunt,” said Hakeem, of the arrest, “They’re trying to create a grand story which would bring the emotions and sentiments of the country’s majority Sinhalese and affected Catholics in their favor.”

Double the trauma

For Sri Lanka’s Muslims, the decision to ban burials for coronavirus victims adds another layer of fear to the pandemic. “The sudden loss of a loved one is painful enough on its own, but being arbitrarily deprived of the right to perform our religious duties towards them doubles the trauma,” said Saroor.

Yoonus has yet to tell his mother of his father’s death. She is being monitored at a hospital in the capital after testing positive for the virus. “We are too scared to tell her. I’m waiting until we’re reunited at home,” he said, “She has heart problems and is very weak. I don’t want the same thing to happen to her.”

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