Residents of Iranaitivu island try to fill graves dug by the authorities to bury Covid-19 victims after the government reversed its policy of forced cremations of coronavirus victims on March 2. (Photo: AFP)
Catholics and voluntary organizations have launched a protest against the Sri Lankan government's decision to bury Covid-19 victims on Iranaitivu island.
Hundreds of people including members of the National Fisheries Cooperation Movement and local residents staged a March 3 protest on the shores of the island when they filled some burial pits.
Catholic priests who took part in the demonstration said the transportation of bodies of those claimed by the contagion would create health problems and locals would not be able to make a living from fishing.
Father Madutheen Pathinather, parish priest of Iranaitivu, said local families had returned recently to their homes in the midst of a great struggle after the decades-long civil war.
He questioned why the government chose to ignore the multiple areas suggested by the Muslim community to bury their dead.
"We strongly oppose the action as it will cause harm to the islanders. They are returning to normalcy step by step. They will never accept this decision by the government. The people are already concerned about the Covid-19 virus spreading through water," Father Pathinather said.
The government previously forced Muslims and Christians to cremate their dead in line with the practice of the Buddhist majority. The government said the burials would contaminate groundwater.
Sinhala hardliner Buddhist monks took to the streets of the capital demanding the government deny permission for burial rights to Muslims.
Some families of Muslim victims have refused to claim the bodies since they were not allowed to bury their loved ones.
The government made cremations compulsory for coronavirus victims last April, ignoring protests from Muslims, who make up nearly 10 percent of the population.
Some 198 countries around the world have acknowledged that there is no risk in burial and have allowed the choice of cremation or burial.
Sri Lanka allowed the burial of Covid-19 victims after facing severe international criticism.
Residents of Iranaitivu said 335 people from 108 resettled families returned to the island in 2017 after the war. The decision to bury pandemic victims on the island should be stopped immediately, they said.
"We the people of Iranaitivu along with the northern and eastern people will continuously stand up for the burial rights of our fellow Muslims and oppose forced cremations," said Sri Lanka Muslim Congress leader Rauf Hakeem in a statement.
"We emphasize that the dead bodies must be given due respect according to universal humanitarian values. Transporting the dead bodies of Covid-19-infected persons from place to place is a violation of the dignity of those deceased as well as their families."
The National Peace Council (NPC) said the decision to enforce cremation of Covid victims on health grounds had no basis in science, as was pointed out by the Health Ministry’s expert committee and the College of Community Physicians of Sri Lanka.
"Our hope is that this decision will also herald a shift in government policy to a more inclusive one that is fair by all sections of the country’s multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multilingual and multicultural polity," said the NPC.
"We anticipate it will have a positive bearing on the discussions in the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, where the issue of enforced Covid cremation was a matter of censure. This decision will also contribute to make Muslims citizens of Sri Lanka feel that the government has finally responded to their deeply felt sentiments."