Health workers collect a swab sample from a resident to test for Covid-19 in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on Jan. 4. (Photo: AFP)
With Sri Lanka’s medical community supporting the burial of Covid-19 victims, there is no need for the government to continue with its cremation-only policy that discriminates against religious minorities, say human rights defenders including church leaders.
Sister Rasika Pieris, a member of the Sisters of the Holy Family congregation, said the policy is a sin against humanity.
"The government is deliberately disregarding a plea from a group of our citizens," said Sister Pieris, who signed a petition with Christian bishops, priests, nuns and academics.
They signed the petition in solidarity with Muslims and Christians who have been forced to cremate their loved ones who were claimed by Covid-19.
"Medical bodies have also acknowledged the deep religious and cultural implications of the forcible cremation policy that has not only affected inter-community co-existence and reconciliation but can be an unwarranted public health issue, especially for affected groups," said 118 human rights defenders and organizations in a statement on Jan. 4.
Bishop Duleep de Chickera, Bishop Kumara Illangasinghe, former Anglican bishops, 11 Christian priests and four nuns and academics were among the signatories.
Several Buddhist organizations and monks recently marched in front of the presidential secretariat demanding that the government cremate all who have died of coronavirus.
The government's tough decision has led to contrasting views among religious leaders.
Some Muslim families have refused to claim bodies of relatives since they were not allowed to bury their loved ones.
Buddhist monks have urged the government to cremate Covid-infected bodies, claiming such bodies will pollute the water supply.
According to the monks, the bodies should be cremated at a high temperature in the nearest crematorium without the participation of relatives and friends.
Sri Lanka made cremations compulsory for coronavirus victims in April, ignoring protests from the Muslim minority.
According to the gazette notification, the corpse should be cremated at a temperature of 800 to 1,200 degrees Celsius for a minimum period of 45 minutes for complete burning.
Many Muslim coronavirus victims were cremated against family wishes and Islamic traditions.
Some 198 countries around the world have acknowledged that there is no risk in burial and have allowed the choice of cremation or burial.
The Liberation Movement organized a protest outside the Borella crematorium gates in solidarity with Muslims who have been forced to cremate loved ones.
They said Islam prohibits cremation as it is believed to desecrate the deceased; the soul and body remain connected after death.
The Sri Lanka Medical Association said Covid-19 victims could be buried as the virus is unlikely to remain infectious within a dead body, adding that no scientific evidence exists from any part of the world that presented burial of Covid-19 dead as a public health hazard.
Sister Noel Christeen Fernando of the Sisters of Charity urged the government to respect minority rights.
"Our rulers steal and rob all our rights from birth to our death. We join with the World Health Organisation, which encourages burial if it is a family wish," said Sister Fernando, who signed the petition.