The forced cremation of a Muslim baby in Sri Lanka has brought communities together in protest against the country’s controversial ban on burials for coronavirus victims.
Cremations are traditional for Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese-Buddhist majority, but Islamic and Christian traditions require burying the dead. In April, Sri Lanka made cremations compulsory for all victims of the pandemic, prompting widespread criticism from rights groups and international organizations.
The infant, Mohammed Shaikh, was 20 days old when he died at an intensive care unit in Colombo, the country’s capital last week. He was cremated the following afternoon against his parent’s will.
“The evening of his death they told us our son had tested positive for COVID-19 with an antigen test, and asked us to sign a form permitting his cremation,” Mohammed Fahim, the baby’s father, told Al Arabiya English. “We asked for an additional PCR test to be done on the baby and they refused.”
Fahim, who drives a rented three-wheeler taxi, told the hospital he planned to raise the 9,000 Sri Lankan rupees (50$) needed for a private PCR test, which he believed would produce a more reliable result than the antigen test.
The next morning, as Fahim was raising funds for the test from his clients, a death certificate from the hospital was delivered to his home, and the baby’s body was transferred to the crematorium, so that it could be cremated within 24 hours.
“I want to know why they rushed to cremate my baby,” said Fahim. Activists say some bodies of coronavirus victims were in morgues for up to ten days before being cremated.
The hospital’s doctors told Sinhalese TV that the infant’s parents had not come to claim the child’s body. “Those were lies. I told them I was going to collect money for a PCR test,” said Fahim.
The only country to force cremations during the pandemic
Sri Lanka is the only country in the world to have forced cremations during the pandemic, ignoring advice that permits burials from the World Health Organization.
The controversial bill is widely viewed as targeting the country’s Muslim minority, which has faced popular resentment after the Easter bombings of 2019, when an Islamist terror group targeted churches and hotels, killing 257 people. Critics say that the ruling Rajapaksa family are capitalizing on this anti-Muslim sentiment for their own political gain.
Petitions against the bill from political parties, lawyers, Islamic organizations and activists of all faiths have so far been ignored. On December 4, Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court rejected a case by 11 affected families from both Muslim and Christian communities.
On Monday, the government announced that Muslim victims of the coronavirus could have their bodies flown to the Maldives for burial.
“We are citizens of Sri Lanka and our ancestors were born on this island. We have chosen to live here in a multicultural country, why should we be buried abroad?” said Shreen Suroor, a human rights activist who has petitioned against the bill, and is in contact with the affected families.
While Sri Lanka’s Christian leadership has not publicly spoken out against the bill, individual activists from the community have opposed it on both religious and political grounds.
“One of our fundamental beliefs as Catholics is to support the rights of the community and to help those who are oppressed and suffering,” said Ruki Fernando, a human rights activist from Colombo who petitioned against the bill in July.
“The last rites are a very important tradition for all communities in Sri Lanka. During the civil war, the families of Tamil militants were allowed to show remembrance” said S.C.C. Elankovan, an activist from Jaffna who also signed the petition. “But now, the government’s policies have been extremely disrespectful towards the families of the dead.”
Communities come together in protest
There are growing signs that wider public acceptance of the bill might be waning.
The day following the cremation of Fahim’s son, two people from Colombo tied white cloths outside the crematorium in solidarity, and shared anonymous photos on social media. The pair declined to speak to Al Arabiya English as they feared reprisals from the authorities, but activists who know them personally described them as members of the Catholic and Hindu faiths.
Then, Buwanaka Pereira, a 25 year-old former flight attendant in Colombo, became the first Sinhalese-Buddhist to post a video condemning the ban on burials.
“I became aware of the issues surrounding the burial ban about a month ago, and a Muslim friend explained to me why these rituals were so important” he told Al Arabiya English. “I realized not enough people were talking about it. It was often buried at the bottom of newspapers or appeared briefly in news announcements”
In just days, his video received over 49,000 views. “At first I received a lot of messages thanking me for speaking out,” he said, “Now I’ve started receiving hate mail, which is a sign my video is reaching the right people.”
Peaceful protestors poured to the crematorium, including high profile politicians, to tie white cloths at the gate. The campaign was replicated in a crematorium in Batticaloa, a city on the northeastern coast of the island.
“We are a nation in healing from a twenty year civil war and the Easter bombing attacks. We should be focusing on acceptance and integration,” said Pereira. “Instead our government tries to emphasize the differences between us.”
Fahim, the baby’s father, hoped this campaign would allow burials for coronavirus victims to resume.
He shared a photo of his newborn, adding: “My baby should be the last Muslim to be cremated in Sri Lanka, and I hope that every parent sees his photo and asks our government to stop this punishment.”
Nonetheless, activists say the hurdles towards repealing the ban are immense. On Monday, Sri Lankan police removed the white cloths outside the crematorium and are now guarding the premises.
“I urge moderate Sinhalese-Buddhists to speak up on this issue. We must work together to find a local solution” said Suroor. “Sadly, public opinion is still on the government’s side” said Elankovan.