COLOMBO: The Sri Lankan government on Friday lifted a controversial order to cremate the bodies of people who died of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), after months of protests by Muslim groups and international pleas.

Mandatory cremation of all COVID-19-related deceased, regardless of their faith, was introduced in April as a safe option to prevent further spread. It sparked an outcry among members of the country’s Muslim minority as it barred them from burying their dead according to Islamic rites.

Muslims make up nearly 10 percent of Sri Lanka’s population of 22 million, which is predominantly Buddhist. Many say the forced cremation policy was discriminatory,  and international groups, including the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, EU, Amnesty International and the UN had sent repeated requests to Colombo to reconsider its decision.

On Friday, the government released a notification permitting burial at designated cemeteries under the supervision of health authorities and “in accordance with the directions issued by the director general of health services.”

Sri Lankan Muslims welcomed the decision. Justice Minister Ali Sabry said he was grateful to the government’s special committee which, after having studied the issue, recommended allowing burial.

“Eventually, sanity has prevailed,” he told Arab News.

Sheikh M. S. Mohammed Thassim, acting secretary of All-Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama (ACJU), a top body of Islamic scholars, said this was the best news a Sri Lankan Muslim could hear.

“This is the end of our mental agony and we will be able to fulfil our last rites to our dear after their deaths,” he said.

Rights activist Shreen Saroor, co-founder of the Women’s Action Network, who in December petitioned with the Supreme Court for the amendment of the cremation policy, said she wanted to thank the families of those whose remains had been forcibly cremated for their resistance.

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“There were two tipping points in our advocacy on getting the burial rights for COVID-19 victims. First, 20-day-old baby Shaykh’s cremation and (her) father Faheem’s plea to the world, and his tireless efforts giving interviews to the media on the tragedy. It is not easy to repeatedly share these painful stories of this nature,” she said, referring to a Muslim baby whose forced cremation in December intensified the public debate.

She also mentioned an incident from September, when a families of Muslims who died of COVID-19 decided to leave their bodies at hospitals, refusing to pay for coffins and cremation.

“These courageous acts caught the world’s attention and ultimately resulted in the rescinding of the gazette that made cremation mandatory, which has now possibly made every Sri Lankan Muslims’ nightmares go away,” Saroor told Arab News.

According to lawmaker Mujibur Rahman, who has advocated against forced cremation, the government reversed its guidelines due to mounting international pressure.

“The government could not face the international and local pressure against its cremation policy; finally, they gave in,” he said.



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