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Sri Lankan MP shares concerns over burial rights with Maldives' government

Rae Munavvar
18 December 2020, MVT 19:50
Sri Lankans tie white fabric outside a crematorium in Colombo, Sri Lanka as a sign of protest over the forced cremations of Muslims that die of COVID19; Islamic burial rites forbid cremation of bodies. PHOTO: AFP
Rae Munavvar
18 December 2020, MVT 19:50

Leader of Sri Lanka’s Muslim congress, parliamentarian Rauf Hakeem has written to the Maldivian government, expressing grave concern over the ongoing discussion pertaining to their government's request to arrange burials for Muslims that succumb to COVID-19 in Maldives.

The email, sent by Hakeem to Maldives’ Ambassador to Sri Lanka Umar Razzaq, outlines the stance of the country’s Muslim community, which seeks to bring an end to discriminatory policies.

Hakeem also highlighted the fact that the Sri Lankan government's refusal to allow funerals as per Islamic rites, the only country in the world to have forced cremations during the pandemic, stood in sharp contrast to the recommendations touted by the world’s leading scientific and medical communities.

“No doubt, this generous offer is an indication of your government’s fraternal feelings towards Sri Lanka and more particularly your empathy towards the Muslim Community”, writes Hakeem of the country's closest neighbor.

“Nevertheless I am constrained to say that we Muslims will instead demand that our government reverse it’s (sic) unjustified cremation only policy”.

Describing the actions of his government a “denial of our [Sri Lankan National’s] fundamental rights”, Hakeem revealed that a number of the victim’s families have refused to pay cremation charges, and opted out of accepting funeral rituals in a demonstration of civic resistance.

He went on to express his goodwill towards Maldives’ and its offer of assistance, while reminding the broader muslim community that “depicts all despicable attempts to demonise and marginalise us”, Sri Lanka’s muslims were “determined not to fall prey to sinister forces which seek to polarise this nation”.

Hakeem has also publicly shared screenshots of his email to the ambassador, in a response directed at Maldives’ Foreign Minister Abdulla Shahid.

Generosity or Enabling?

The reply was made to a tweet by Minister Shahid, wherein he defended President Solih’s decision to aid Sri Lanka, saying it was based on “close long-standing bilateral ties” between the nations, and would “ensure to help face the challenges of the pandemic”.

However, others have confronted the suggestion that Sri Lanka is facing a “time of need” as described by Maldives’ Economic Minister Fayyaz Ismail, stating the former possess ample and apparent resources to change burial policies, including higher land availability compared to Maldives.

Ahmed Shaheed, UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, responded in disagreement with Fayyaz’s statement, noting that the move could serve to further marginalise the Muslim population of Sri Lanka.

The Sri Lankan government is facing severe backlash for their controversial decision to cremate Muslims that succumb to COVID-19, against the wishes of their families.

Hakeem’s letter follows a total of 18 Sri Lankan Islamic organisations known to have urged President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih to reject the Sri Lankan government's request to arrange burials for Muslims that succumb to COVID-19.

Lingering moments of silence

Sri Lanka announced that it would cremate the bodies of all people who die of COVID-19, in order to prevent the contamination of groundwater, during early March.

It should also be noted that, at this time, the government has not confirmed whether Rajapaksa asked Maldives to facilitate burials. The Sri Lankan president’s spokesman Keheliya Rambukwellah has been quoted by several local and international papers stating that the matter was never discussed with the cabinet.

While Sri Lankan officials have suggested their Muslim neighbours initiated the move, upon further query from The Edition, Maldives’ Ministry of Foreign Affairs declined to pass any comment on the matter.

As both locals and Sri Lankans continue to voice concerns on enabling the incumbent Sri Lankan leadership’s wishes to export bodies of their dead Muslims to Maldives, many have pushed for the Maldivian government to take a hardline over the matter and encourage the Lankan government to allow its Muslim population to bury its deceased as per religious obligations.

The 57-member Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) has also expressed concern over the cremation order and called for Sri Lankan Muslims to be allowed to bury family members in line with their religious beliefs.

Respecting science and religion

The latest guidelines publicised by the World Health Organization (WHO) state that people who die of COVID-19 may be safely either “buried or cremated” according to “local standards and family preferences”. Further, WHO has long advocated for the safe and dignified burial of patients that succumb to a disease, in every circumstance possible, whereas it does not endanger or harm others.

In the case of a COVID-19 related death, if a ceremony is held, the organisation advises keeping the number of participants at a strict minimum.

Muslims make up nearly 10 percent of Sri Lanka’s 21 million people. Since the decades-long war between Tamil separatists and the military ended in 2009, Lankan Muslims have faced increasing hostility from Sinhalese Buddhist nationalists.

According to Al Jazeera News, a number of radicals accuse Muslims of high birth rates and forcing people to convert to Islam to reduce Sri Lanka’s Sinhala Buddhist majority. Mobs are reported to have targeted homes and businesses of Muslims, as well as places of worship.

The animosity reached its current peak following the deadly suicide attacks on churches and hotels in April 2019, later claimed by the terrorist group ISIL (ISIS).

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