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Mumbai Catholics call for burials of Covid-19 victims

A court ruled against city authorities' direction to cremate all coronavirus victims

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Mumbai Catholics call for burials of Covid-19 victims

A passenger waits to board her flight at Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj International Airport in Mumbai on May 28 after domestic flights resumed in India. (Photo: Indraninl Mukherjee/AFP)

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Catholics in Mumbai, India's commercial capital, have urged Cardinal Oswald Gracias to allow burials of Covid-19 victims in church cemeteries after a court ruled against compulsory cremations.

Since April 2, the archdiocese has halted the burial of Catholics who died of Covid-19 in its cemeteries after the city administration insisted on cremating all pandemic victims, fearing burials could spread the virus.

"We want our dear ones to be buried in our cemeteries," said Melvin Fernandes, a Catholic leader, after submitting a memorandum to Cardinal Gracias on May 26 demanding to bury Catholics who die of Covid-19 in the city. 

The Catholics' call comes after Mumbai High Court on May 22 nullified the city authorities' guideline. The order allowed the burial of Covid-19 victims saying there was no scientific proof to support the apprehension "that novel coronavirus could spread through cadavers."

Cardinal Gracias on April 2 urged Catholics to cremate their Covid-19 victims in compliance with the circulars of Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), the civic body that manages the city.

The thickly populated city of 18 million people, the capital of Maharashtra state, is the worst-affected Indian city. With nearly 30,000 Covid-19 cases, Mumbai had recorded nearly 20 percent of India's 158,000 cases as of May 28.

The city authorities' insistence on cremation met with opposition from the Muslim community, forcing authorities to earmark a cemetery for those opposed to cremation.

Indian Muslims and Christians generally bury their dead, while cremation is considered a Hindu practice.

"Now, we want all our Catholic Church cemeteries to be opened for the burial of Catholics who die of Covid-19," Fernandes told UCA News on May 27.

"A parish in the archdiocese recently refused to bury a 61-year-old Catholic lady who died of Covid-19 infection in its cemetery," said Fernandes, secretary of a Catholic lay forum called Association of Concerned Catholics.

While Christians followed the city authorities' guidelines, some Catholics said Muslims were burying their dead in the cemeteries of their choice.

The case came to court when some people opposed the burial of Muslim Covid-19 victims in a cemetery. They also locked the gate of the cemetery, forcing the Muslims there to move court.

A single-judge bench on April 27 ruled in the Muslims' favor and ordered the cemetery's keys to be returned to the rightful owners. The complainants then appealed to a higher bench of the High Court, resulting in the May 22 order that ruled against forced cremations.

The state government also disagreed with the city authorities' contention and told the court that burials are "not likely to spread the virus in the vicinity."

"The transmission cannot happen unless people in the locality come in direct contact with the body brought for burial or cremation," the state said, quoting the World Health Organization.

Father Nigel Barratt, spokesperson for Cardinal Gracias, told UCA News on May 28 that the archdiocese is not against the burial of a Catholic who dies of Covid-19.

"We are following the guidelines issued by the civic body. Once the civic body gives its green signal, it is for the trustees and other members of the parish to take a call on such burials. The diocese has no objection to it," the priest said.

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