The United States and four Special Rapporteurs of the United Nations tell the government the practice is against religious liberty of Muslims and others.
by Daniela Bovolenta
On January 30, 2021, Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-Maryland), former co-chair of the Sri Lankan Caucus in the U.S. House of Representatives, and widely regarded as the top expert of Sri Lanka within the Democratic Party, wrote a letter to Sri Lankan Ambassador in Washington DC, Ravinatha P. Aryasinha. Van Hollen expressed “serious concerns” regarding Sri Lanka’s mandatory policy of cremating COVID-19 victims, citing religious liberty issues. US Ambassador to Sri Lanka, Alaina B. Teplitz, expressed the same position on behalf of the American government.
Van Hollen echoed similar concerns expressed last week in a joint letter to the Sri Lankan government written from the United Nations by Ahmed Shaheed, Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief; Fernand de Varennes, Special Rapporteur on minority issues; Clément Nyaletsossi Voule, Special Rapporteur on the rights of peaceful assembly and association; and Tlaleng Mofokeng, Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.
According to the Fourth amendment of the 2020 Provisional Clinical Practice Guidelines on COVID-19 Suspected and Confirmed Patients, Sri Lanka made cremation of such patients mandatory. Local authorities claimed that burial would “contaminate the ground” and create a public health hazard.
The UN Special Rapporteurs, however, noted that no scientific evidence exists indicating that burying COVID-19 victims can spread the disease, and it is more believable that the pandemic is used as a pretext to further discriminate against Muslim and other minority believers, who are often victims of intolerance in Sri Lanka.
“We deplore the implementation of such public health decisions based on discrimination, aggressive nationalism and ethnocentrism amounting to persecution of Muslims and other minorities in the country,” the UN Rapporteurs wrote. “Such hostility against the minorities exacerbates existing prejudices, intercommunal tensions, and religious intolerance, sowing fear and distrust while inciting further hatred and violence,” they said, adding that “hate speech and stigmatization of the Muslims and other minorities as a vector of the pandemic” are also prevailing in Sri Lanka.
They noted that cremation often takes place immediately, preventing family members to discuss the possibilities with the authorities, and that there have been even cases of cremations of deceased persons which in fact did not die of COVID-19, based on erroneous information. They also mentioned that the advice by a panel of experts appointed by the State Minister for Primary Health Services, Pandemics and COVID Prevention, which had recommended offering burial as an option to religious minorities, was disregarded by the government.
Senator Van Hollen stated that, “as the act of cremating a dead body is forbidden in Islam, this policy has exacerbated the stress and grief in the Muslim community in Sri Lanka. It has denied COVID-19 victims, and their families, of Islamic funeral rights.” “The dignity of the dead, their cultural and religious traditions, and their families should be respected and protected throughout,” he said.