Forced Cremation of Covid Dead in Sri Lanka Further Marginalizes Muslim Community

A Muslim woman in Sri Lanka holds a small child. Image: vikalpasl/flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Baby Shaayiq Faz was just 20 days old when he died. He was the youngest Covid victim in Sri Lanka, born amid a pandemic and cremated before reaching his first birthday. Officials at a Sri Lankan hospital claim the baby tested positive for Covid, a result that confused the parents, who have tested negative. Cremation is a common method to dispose of the dead throughout the world. However, the practice is not universally accepted. Muslims consider cremation a forbidden practice that desecrates the body.

As one hadith notes, only Allah is allowed to punish with fire. Another hadith proclaims that breaking a bone of the dead is like breaking the bone of a living person—it is forbidden. Muslim scholars around the world have noted that certain practices, such as the ritual bathing of the body, can be modified during times of emergencies, including pandemics. Additionally, the number of people present at a Muslim funeral can also be reduced as long as the funeral prayer and burial occurs. Further modifications have also been adopted by Muslims, such as increased distance during prayer. Muslims are meant to stand next to each other, but most mosques now ask adherents to stand six feet apart. Cremation, though, remains non-negotiable and has been condemned by Muslim leaders throughout the world, including Sri Lanka.

According to early health guidelines issued by the Sri Lankan Health Ministry, the body of a person who has died from Covid should not be washed or touched but placed in a sealed bag in a coffin. The guidelines further stated that in addition to cremation, burial was allowed, provided that the grave was deep enough not to touch ground water. These guidelines were later changed without warning.

The controversy erupted in early April 2020, when the Sri Lankan Health Ministry made cremations compulsory for victims of the coronavirus. Muslim leaders and activists quickly criticized the guidelines which are considered to be at odds with those issued by the World Health Organization. Hilmy Ahamed, vice president of the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka stated, “The Muslim community sees this as a racist agenda of extremist Buddhist forces that seem to hold the government to ransom.” Biraj Patnaik, South Asia director at Amnesty International, said in a statement, “At this difficult time, the authorities should be bringing communities together and not deepening divisions between them.” Karu Jayasuriya, the current Speaker of the Parliament, tweeted, “Both Covid and racism are killer contagions, that sickens anyone who catches them. Ironically, we lock down on one, and open the floodgates to the other.” The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom also tweeted that they are “concerned with reports of forced cremation of Muslims who died from coronavirus.”

As of December 10, 2020, there have been 146 Covid deaths in Sri Lanka with a disproportionate number coming from the Muslim community; despite making up less than 10% of the population, Muslims account for nearly half of the reported deaths. A Muslim leader in Sri Lanka informed the authors that the number is actually higher, and that 82 Muslims have died, with over 70 cremations. The cremation of the victims was carried out by the state without the approval of the families. When Muslim and Christian families of cremated victims brought their case to the Supreme Court, the court refused to hear the case. In protest, Muslim families have started to refuse the remains of their family members. To make matters worse, the government charges the families, many of them poor, upwards of $300 for cremation services.

Sri Lanka is the only country, besides China, that mandates cremation for Covid victims. Despite being a virus spread through respiratory droplets, the government has expressed concern that burial of the bodies would contaminate the groundwater. Early in the pandemic, Muslims were blamed for the spread of the virus and non-Muslims were warned to not buy food from Muslim vendors.

There’s been similar anti-Muslim sentiment and disinformation in India as well. In previous pandemics, particularly Ebola, preparations of the dead were seen as a leading cause of viral spread. While care should certainly be taken with the handling of bodies that have passed from Covid, the risk of viral spread is limited, and cremation is not necessary. The continued practice of forced cremation represents a violation of human rights and religious freedom. As the World Health Organization has noted, “there are no health advantages of cremation over burial.”

The treatment of the minority Muslim population in Sri Lanka has been of increasing concern since the end of the Civil War in May 2009. With the defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE, or Tamil Tigers), which killed at least 40,000 people in the last five months alone by conservative UN estimates, there was a global push for justice, human rights, and reconciliation on the island. Instead, what seems to have happened is that the government and Sinhala-nationalist elements in the country have taken advantage of the crisis in order to target a minority population.

There are many reasons to believe this explanation given the recent history of the area:

  • In September 2011, a 300-year-old Muslim shrine in Anuradhapura was destroyed.
  • In April 2012, thousands forcibly entered a mosque in Dambulla and destroyed everything inside.
  • In March 2013, a mob led by Buddhist monks attacked a series of Muslim owned businesses in the capital city of Colombo.
  • In June 2014, several days of communal violence erupted after an altercation between a Buddhist monk and three Muslim youth.
  • In February 2018, fueled by online misinformation about Muslims secretly sterilizing Sinhalese people, violence erupted in the small town of Ampara and spread to other areas as well.
  • And after the April 2019 Easter terrorist attacks, anti-Muslim violence once again erupted on the island.

With the rise of the pandemic, misinformation about coronavirus has been seamlessly incorporated into existing prejudice against Muslims. The government’s policy of forced cremation during the pandemic will only serve to further marginalize Muslims and create further fractures within the community paving the way for future communal conflict. The government of Sri Lanka, as such, should follow suggestions by the WHO, infectious disease specialists, and human rights organizations around the world and abandon the practice of forced cremations.