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Forced cremations of COVID-19 victims defy WHO guidelines and disregard minorities’ rights – Amnesty

Global human rights group, Amnesty International, released a press statement in response to Sri Lanka cremating their coronavirus (COVID-19) victims, stating the authorities “must respect the right of religious minorities to carry out the final rites of their relatives in accordance with their own traditions unless they can show that restrictions are needed to prevent the spread of COVID-19.”  

Sri Lanka has forcibly cremated the bodies of two of the early COVID-19 victims, on instructions from the authorities, despite the World Health Organization (WHO) suggesting it was not essential to do so.

The press statement highlighted the WHO guidelines, to convey the Sri Lanka authorities’ unjustified decision to cremate bodies;

“The World Health Organization’s guidelines for the safe management of a dead body in the context of Covid-19 allows for either burials or cremations and this position was mirrored in the Sri Lanka Ministry of Health guidelines issued on 27 March 2020.

On 31 March, the Sri Lankan guidelines were revised to exclusively order cremations for people who die or are suspected to have died as a result of contracting the COVID-19 virus. The government has not provided adequate or reasonable justification for departing from the WHO guidelines, which underlines concerns that the change was not necessary to protect public health.”

Biraj Patnaik, South Asia Director at Amnesty International responded;

“At this difficult time, the authorities should be bringing communities together and not deepening divisions between them. Grieving relatives of people who have died because of COVID-19 should be able to bid farewell to their loved ones in the way that they wish, especially where this is permissible under international guidelines”

Discrimination against minorities

The press release also insisted there are concerns that not being able to bury families may provoke religious tensions;

“The forced cremations have resurfaced fears that Sri Lanka’s Muslim minority community is being targeted by the authorities. Last year, the authorities did not intervene to stop attacks on Muslim-owned shops and homes by violent mobs and emergency regulations were abused to ban women wearing the face veil, in the aftermath of the 21 April bombings by an Islamist armed group that killed more than 250 people in attacks on three churches and three hotels in Sri Lanka.

For Sri Lanka’s Muslim community, which makes up nine per cent of the population, burials are considered to be a required part of the final rites in accordance with Islamic traditions.

The first Muslim death took place on 31 March, in Negombo, a town on Sri Lanka’s western coast, before the guidelines were revised to exclude burials. Despite protests  by the relatives of the deceased, community leaders and Muslim politicians, a burial was blocked by the authorities, and a cremation took place instead. The second Muslim death happened on 1 April at the National Institute of Infectious Diseases and the person was cremated a day later despite efforts by the victim’s family and the Muslim community to carry out a burial.

Given the underlying religious and cultural sensitivities, Amnesty International urges the Government of Sri Lanka to ensure that religious rites and practices are respected as far as possible and in line with international guidelines; and any changes to guidelines involve prior consultation with the affected community.”

“COVID-19 does not discriminate between groups. Its victims include people of all faiths and none. As it strikes almost every country in the world, the virus is showing that we are united by our common humanity. The only way to deal with this crisis is as one, united in our support for the health workers on the frontlines and people from all backgrounds who are at risk during the pandemic,” added Biraj Patnaik.

Read the full press release here

For Muslim (and Jewish) communities, cremation is prohibited and a “desecration of the deceased.” Even though the coronavirus has forced funeral workers across the world to adapt the way that those who die are put to rest, very few countries have resorted to cremating the bodies.

“Just two people can conduct the funeral prayer if necessary, and corpses are not always washed,” said Musharraf Hussain, a UK-based academic and translator of The Majestic Quran.

Muslim families of COVID-19 victims in the UK, have reported that Imam’s (chaplain) have been present to conduct funeral prayers, and have complied with health guidelines. 

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