Sri Lanka to continue to cremate Muslim Covid-19 victims despite the uproar, rejecting international pleas and recommendations from its own experts to allow the Muslim minority to bury their dead.
The announcement came despite a government-appointed expert committee noting this week that while it felt cremations were safest, burials could be allowed under strict conditions.
The government first banned burials in April amid concerns that burying bodies could contaminate groundwater and spread the virus. Experts have said these claims are baseless.
The World Health Organisation has also said that there is no such risk, recommending both burials and cremations of virus victims, but the Sri Lankan government has refused.
“This decision will not be changed for social, religious, political or any other personal reason,” Health Minister Pavithra Wanniarachchi said, according to ministry officials.
Traditionally and in line with the Islamic custom, Muslims bury their dead facing Mecca. Sri Lanka’s majority Buddhists, who are strong backers of the current government, are typically cremated, as are Hindus.
Last month, authorities ordered the forced cremation of at least 19 Muslim Covid-19 victims, including a baby, after their families refused to claim their bodies from a hospital morgue.
This stoked dismay and anger among the Muslim community, moderates and abroad, with the 57-member Organisation of Islamic Cooperation repeatedly expressing concern.
Sri Lanka’s Muslim Council (SLMC) had earlier accused the government of trying to provoke Muslim youths into doing “something rash” with its decision on cremations, a claim echoed by Justice Minister Ali Sabry, a Muslim.
There have been ongoing tensions between Muslims and the majority Sinhalese — who are mostly Buddhists — since the deadly 2019 Easter bombings carried out by local jihadists.
The SLMC said more than half of Sri Lanka’s 222 Covid-19 victims were from the Muslim minority which accounts for just 10 per cent of the 21 million population.