Sri Lankan authorities have been accused of violating the Islamic burial rites of a Muslim. The forced cremation of two Muslim COVID-19 victims has sent shock waves through the community. Bishrul Hafi Mohammed Joonus was a 73-year-old man from Colombo who died after contracting COVID-19. He was the second Muslim to be cremated in the Indian Ocean Island nation, which has registered 151 cases so far. 
Bishrul’s son, Fayaz Joonus, 46, explained that his father had a kidney disorder and tested positive for COVID-19 two weeks ago. Bishrul died on April 1st and was cremated the following day. May Allāh (subḥānahu wa taʿālā) accept him as a shaheed and grant him the highest ranks of Jannah, āmīn.
Fayaz was deeply saddened as they could not even perform a congregational funeral prayer (janāzah) for his father due to the potential gathering bringing about fear of infection. Fayaz goes further onto say “My father was taken into a vehicle under the supervision of the police force and was cremated. We did some prayer outside the morgue, but it was not a janāzah that us Muslims typically do.”
The oppressive act of cremating Muslims who die of COVID-19 is wrong. Fayaz added that:
“The government needs to make arrangements for us Muslims to be able to bur our loved ones in accordance with our Islamic burial rites. If there is an option of burial, our government should accommodate. Cremation is not the only option.”
On Tuesday, Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Health issued COVID-19 guidelines stating the standard procedure of disposing bodies should be cremation. This reversed an earlier guideline that allowed for a traditional Muslim burial. However, the government has not provided reasonable or adequate justification for departing from the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) guidelines, demonstrating that the change was not necessary to protect public health, but instead for other reasons unknown.
Amnesty has called on authorities to stop forced cremation, urging the Sri Lankan government to ensure that religious rites and practices are respected in line with international guidelines. Many Muslim leaders and activists have pointed out that WHO has allowed both burials and cremations for people who have died as a result of the pandemic.
Biraj Patnaik, Amnesty International’s South Asia Director, said: “At this difficult time, the authorities should be bringing communities together – not deepening divisions between them.” He went further on to say: “Grieving relatives of people who have died of COVID-19 should be able to bid farewell to their loved ones in the way that they wish, especially where this is permissible under international guidelines.” 
Muslims account for around 10 percent of Sri Lanka’s 21 million population, but their relationship with the majority Sinhala Buddhists deteriorated in the years after the end of civil war in 2009 during which hard-line Buddhists groups have been responsible for several brutal attacks against Muslim businesses and places of worship.
Muslims in Sri Lanka are living in uncertainty, with the fear of retaliation and reprisal attacks running high. Muslims across the South Asian island have also long faced discrimination and have been targeted with arbitrary arrests.
In April 2019, the Sri Lankan government banned Muslim women from wearing the niqāb and burqa in public following the deadly attacks that took place. Human rights organisations and Muslim organisations have criticised the ban, arguing that it could cause tensions between the Muslim community and others, as well as fuel long-term discrimination against Muslims, especially those who wear the niqāb and burqa. 
The Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka has, on many occasions, strongly criticised the on-going harassment of and discrimination against Muslims, and has even called for decisive measures to safeguard everyone’s rights with cultural and religious sensitivity, which to-date have by and large fallen on deaf ears. 
Furthermore, the UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide,  the Delegation of the European Union (EU),  and Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC),  issued strongly worded statements expressing extreme concern about the hate attacks, harassment, and political and religious pressure being directed at Sri Lanka’s Muslim community.
Forced cremations during coronavirus crisis have given rise to concerns that Sri Lanka’s Muslim minority community is again being targeted by the authorities.
Nalaka Gunawadenne, a media analyst, said that amid the COVID-19 Pandemic, it is very disturbing and disheartening to see anti-Islamic sentiments and anti-Muslim hate speech “raise their ugly head again in Sri Lanka”. Nalaka explained that “this is a national and global emergency shared by all humans, and not a time highlighting our cultural divisions. The coronavirus does not care about our ethnic or religious differences. We need to fear the virus – not each other and unite in containing and battling the disease.”
The views expressed on Islam21c and its connected channels do not necessarily represent the views of the organisation.