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Sri Lanka does away with forced cremations after PM Imran Khan reportedly raises issue

Sri Lanka banned burials in April 2020 over monks' concerns that the practice could contaminate groundwater and spread coronavirus

February 26, 2021
AFP/Maria Tan/Files
  • Sri Lanka announces an end to the forced cremations, marking a win for the island nation's minority Muslims.
  • Demonstrators had used PM Imran Khan's visit as a chance to call attention to Islamic burial customs being ignored.
  • Decision comes a couple of days after Pakistani PM Imran Khan's official visit to Sri Lanka.

ISLAMABAD/COLOMBO: Sri Lanka announced Friday it was doing away with the forced cremations it had brought into effect last year over COVID-19 concerns after Prime Minister Imran Khan reportedly raised the issues  with the country's premier and president.

PM Imran met with Sri Lanka President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa during his two-day official visit to the island nation earlier this week, with official sources saying he spoke to the two leaders about a ban backed by influential Buddhist monks and enforced in April 2020.

The win for the island's minority Muslims and their funeral rites comes mere days after dozens of demonstrators used the Pakistani premier's February 23 visit as an opportunity to call attention to the Sri Lankan government's disregard for Islamic burial customs and carried a mock coffin.

'Welcome' Sri Lanka's official notification

In response to the policy change, PM Imran 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.

Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi also said Pakistan was grateful to Sri Lanka's leadership for allowing the option of burial for victims of COVID-19.

"Indeed it is these very principles of mutual understanding, respect and humanity that bring relationships to thrive and prosper," Qureshi wrote on Twitter.

The 57-member Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) had also raised the forced cremation policy at the United Nations in Geneva this week. The organisation had raised similar issues in April last year.

In December 2020, Srilankan 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.

Influential Buddhist monks

Muslims traditionally bury their dead facing Makkah but Sri Lanka's majority Buddhists — who are strong backers of the current government — are typically cremated.

Similar customs are practised by the Hindu population of the country.

Sri Lanka had first banned burials in April 2020 over concerns — which experts said were baseless — by influential Buddhist monks that the practice could contaminate groundwater and spread the virus, leading to an outcry by members of the South Asian nation's Muslim community who constitute 10% of the 21 million population.

While health minister Pavithra Wanniarachchi did not give a reason in her announcement reversing the ban, official sources said the Pakistani premier had raised the subject with both President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa during his trip earlier this week.