On Thursday, December 17 a few Christian priests gathered at the crematorium at the Borella Cemetery. In their visit to the crematorium and the symbolic tying of a white cloth along the fence they were indicating their solidarity with Muslims who are grief stricken over the government’s refusal to allow the burial of those who succumb to the COVID virus. The Priests, drawn from the Anglican, Catholic and Methodist Christian denominations gathered at the crematorium where 20 day old baby Shaykh was cremated several days ago. The baby had been subjected to a rapid antigen test, which showedpositive, when admitted to the Lady Ridgeway Hospital for children. His parents had tested negative. The baby had passed away several hours after admission, and as decreed by the government was cremated, much to the consternation and protests of the family. Galvanized by the cremation of the baby, Muslims who have been objecting to this government mandated action, ever since the first member of their community who succumbed to COVID 19 was cremated, earlier this year, gathered at the cemetery to tie white cloths on the fence to mark their protest. They were joined by many people of other faiths who had been up to then quietly supporting the Muslims on this issue. The white cloth protest has since gathered momentum, with many people even in the North and East of the country joining in. The white cloth tied at the Borella cemetery that first day had been removed overnight, allegedly by the police, resulting in the protest moving on to social media, with photos of a cloth tied around wrists, daring “Come Remove this” under the hashtag #StopForcedCremations being posted by those enraged by the governments insensitivity. Sri Lanka’s Muslim community has been agitating against the forced cremations of their
Picture Courtesy by Twitter
members, ever since the Sri Lanka government decreed that all those succumbing to the coronavirus must be cremated. A gazette notification issued in April this year stated that the Quarantine and Prevention of Diseases Ordinance had been amended to read “the corpse of a person who has died or is suspected to have died of coronavirus shall be cremated.” While there were some schools of thought when the virus first erupted that it could even spread from dead bodies, hence the need to cremate, the World Health Organisation and other well-known scientific bodies have since stated that such fears are without grounds. Therefore, burials and cremations are permitted. Yet, the Sri Lanka government will not yield. Twelve fundamental rights petitions filed with the Supreme Court did not even get a hearing, with the justices refusing leave to proceed, earlier this month. Recommendations by the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka too seem to have fallen on deaf ears. If the government is seeking further scientific clarification, they only need to listen to the views of world renown Pathologist and Virologist Professor Malik Pieris, now stationed in Hong Kong, who, in an interview explains that ‘unlike bacteria, a virus, by its very definition requires living cells to replicate’, therefore making transmission of the coronavirus from a corpse extremely unlikely. He reiterates that there is no need to fear that COVID 19 could spread from a dead body, when he points out that a virus would have to filter through many layers of soil before getting into water, and even then, he adds there is no scientific basis to claim it would be contagious. So, what more scientific evidence is warranted? While the government refuses to bury the victims, it seems quite happy to transport the corpses to the Maldive Islands, a Muslim country for burial. A plan bordering on the ludicrous! For one, if the bodies are expected to be disposed of within 24 hours of death, as Sri Lanka’s health guidelines state, how would this time line apply when transporting a body from this country to the Maldives? If the government’s contention is that the body is still contagious, how does it propose to ensure the safety of health and transport staff and airport authorities etc. handling the bodies while enroute? Moreover, the Maldives is a group of islands, surrounded by water, just like Sri Lanka. How could burying COVID victims in the Maldives, make it any safer for Maldivians, if the same cannot be guaranteed for Sri Lankans? What about the wishes of family members? Has the government even consulted with them? Would the government periodically provide transportation and accommodation to the families of these victims, to visit and pray at the graves of their loved ones buriedin the Maldives as faith dictates? The entire situation smells of nothing but an attempt by the current government to further erode ties between the Muslim community and others, especially the Sinhalese. Christian Priests at the crematorium where baby Shaykh was cremated. While Abrahamic religions, Islam, Christianity and Judaism favour burial over cremation, over time Christianity has come to accept cremation as an option.
Indeed after much debate, the Catholic Church in 1963 permitted cremations. However, overwhelmingly Catholics continue to opt to be buried, mostly because of the teachings of the church, have, for decades preached against it. As well, like Muslims, Christians too believe in the resurrection of the body.
As noted in the guidelines issued by the Vatican on burials and cremations in 2016 in ‘Instruction Aresugendum Cum Christoregarding the burial of the deceased and the conservation of the ashes in the case of cremation’ the Church reminds her flock that ‘By burying the bodies of the faithful, the Church confirms her faith in the resurrection of the body, and intends to show the great dignity of the human body as an integral part of the human person whose body forms part of their identity.”
Some Christian denominations such as Pentecostal do not permit the cremation of their dead.
Muslims are also expected as a community to ensure the rituals pertaining to death and burial are observed. In fact, writing in Humanitarian Law & Policy, Ahmed al-Dawoody explains that ‘The burial of the deceased is a collective obligation (far?kif?yah) on the Muslim community. Because it is a collective obligation the entire Muslim community will be guilty if a Muslim body is not buried, unless the burial was beyond their knowledge or capacity.”
No wonder then, in the absence of a scientific reason for insisting on cremation, that the entire Muslim community is up in arms over the government’s decision to cremate all those who succumb to the coronavirus.
Justice Minister Ali Sabry cuts a sorry figure.
He has been seen on various occasions, even prior to theparliamentary elections this August, advocating a change of heart by the government. In a recent interview with LahiruMudalige of HariTV, he spoke his mind again. Explaining that there are four aspects followed in the preparation and burial rites of a Muslim, he said that, keeping in mind COVID regulations, they will not wash or wrap the body or participate in community prayers. However, there is no scientific basis to prevent burials, he said, adding that such continued action could only stir extremists sentiments amongst Muslim youth.
Earlier in the interview, he recalled his strong connections to the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, adding that his decision to join this government was on the insistence of both Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and brother, President Gotabaya. Despite enjoying such close ties to the seat of power, it is indeed pathetic, that he has been unable to persuade the government to relent and to win this right for his community.
And what of the Catholic Church? EconomyNext quoted Fr. Jude Krishantha, spokesperson for the Bishop’s House as sayingthat while the church does not oppose cremation, the decision whether to bury or cremate lies “in the hands of the family members.” Furthermore, he explained that even in the COVID situation, burial or cremation is an issue not for the Church, but the family. Basically, what he is saying here is that the Church will not stand by a family that wishes to bury a loved one who dies of COVID. Asked whether the Church has a stand on the issue that has erupted with the Muslims, he has again said that the Church “does not want to intervene.”
That does not come as a surprise. Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith has consistently ignored even the plight of other Christian denominations who have faced much harassment over the years, leave alone the Muslims!
He does seem to forget that even despite cremations being allowed, most Catholics still opt to be buried, and that in the eyes of a majority of the population, we are all, Christian, Hindu, Muslim et al minorities. As one priest commented to this writer, many Christians perceive burial as a another identity that sets them apart from Buddhists and Hindus who are cremated.
For Muslims and indeed any Christian victim of the coronavirus who opt for a burial, the odds are stacked against them; ajudiciary that even refused to hear the case, and a government that has up to now refused to budge from its position. At least in the case of the Muslims, the entire community is together in this matter. God Help a Catholic who believes he or she must only be buried. The Church in Sri Lanka has already washed her hands off them!
Perhaps, the government is unwilling to anger the Buddhist monks on whose backs they rode to power. Many of these powerful monks and some nationalists have spoken out against the burials, and the government must be fearful of going against their wishes. That’s surprising though, because the Gotabaya Rajapaksa of yesteryear, was seen to be a decisive and strong man, not given to bending to the whims and fancies of others.
Perhaps the government is ill-advised on this matter. Perhaps it is still looking for a face saving measure. Whatever the reason that prevents it from relenting, it would do well to remember that such polarising actions will lead to further ill-will between communities, and a deep disappointment in the government.
A majority of the Tamils, who sat on the fence while others in their community were claiming a separate homeland for them, joined the struggle after the 1983 communal riots. The devastation that followed is not yet forgotten. Ali Sabry warns the current situation could just be the trigger to draw Muslim youth to extremism.
Should that be allowed to happen?
Perhaps the government changed the Ordinance in April this year with good intentions. But, in refusing to reconsider, despite scientific evidence, it is painting itself to a corner.
How will it extricate itself?