Covid-19: Sri Lanka forcibly cremates Muslim baby sparking anger

The forced cremation of a 20-day-old Muslim baby in Sri Lanka highlighted the government’s controversial order to burn the bodies of all those who died of Covid. Critics say that the decision is not based in science and only intended to target the minority community.

Mohamed Fahim and his wife Fathima Shafna were thrilled when their baby boy Shaykh was born on 18 November after a six-year wait. But their joy was short-lived. On the night of 7 December, they noticed the baby was struggling to breathe. They had rushed him to the capital Colombo’s best children’s hospital, the Lady Ridgeway. “They told us the baby was in a severe condition and was suffering from pneumonia. But then, around midnight they did an antigen test and told us the baby was positive for coronavirus,” Mohammed Fahim, who drives a three-wheeler for a living, told. Doctors tested Mr. Fahim and his wife but they were both negative. “I asked how my baby was positive when both of us, even the mother who was breastfeeding him, were negative?” Despite the tears and pleas the anxious couple were sent home by officials who said more tests were needed. They were told to call the hospital for updates. The next day the couple were informed that they had lost their child due to the virus. The father repeatedly asked the doctors to conduct PCR test to reconfirm but they refused.

Then the doctors asked the father to sign a document authorizing the cremation of the child as required by the law in Sri Lanka. Mr. Fahim refused to cremation because it is forbidden in Islam and considered a form of mutilation forbidden by Allah. Muslims also believe in the resurrection of the physical body, and cremation is to prevent this. And he is not alone. Some Muslim families has also refused to claim the bodies of their dead and leaving the government to cremate them on state expense, while many will not accept the ashes of their loved ones. Mr. Fahim says he had been repeatedly been asking for his baby’s body to be handed back to him but the officials said no. The next day he was told his son’s body was being taken to the crematorium. “I went there but I didn’t enter the hall,” he says. “How can you watch your baby son being burnt?”

Political, religious and community leaders representing the Muslim community have been repeatedly requested the government to change its “cremate only” policy, pointing to more than 190 countries allowing burials, and World Health Organization advice. It has even taken its fight to the Supreme Court but the cases were dismissed without an explanation. The government argues burials could contaminate ground water based on the say-so of an expert committee, the composition and qualifications of which are unknown. World-renowned virologist Prof Malik Peiris, however, has questioned the theory. “Covid-19 is not a waterborne disease,” Prof Peiris told. “And I haven’t seen any evidence to suggest it spreads through dead bodies. A virus can only multiply in a living cell. Once a person dies, the ability of the viruses to multiply decreases.”  He added: “Dead bodies aren’t buried right in running water. Once you bury the body six feet under wrapped in impermeable wrapping. It is highly unlikely it would contaminate running water.”

There had not been much sympathy for the plight of Muslim community- but the forced cremation of baby Shaykh has changed that. Soon after the news broke men and women clergy from other faiths, rights, activists and opposition politicians gathered outside the crematorium, and tied white ribbons on the gate. Many were from the majority Sinhala community. People have also taken to social media to condemn what happened. Activist and lawyer Thyagi Ruwanpathirana, who was among those who tied white cloth on the gates and tweeted about her experience: “While I was trying it, a mother and daughter duo crossed the road and joined me with their own white cloths. Till I came they were worried someone may be watching. “I couldn’t quite make out what the mother was trying to say at first because we all had our masks on. Then she said, ‘The baby was only two-days-old no? Sin. This way at least my heart will be satisfied.” The whit cloths disappeared overnight, believed to have been removed by the authorities, but the anger did not.

Hilmy Ahmed, the vice-president of the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka, told that it was clear this was all part of a “racist” agenda, targeting the Muslim minority. “The government doesn’t seem to take into consideration the advice of virologists or microbiologists or epidemiologists. This is racist agenda of a few in the technical committee.” “This is probably the last straw for Muslims because nobody expected this little baby to cremated,” he added. “That also without even showing the child to the parents.” But the government denies that the measures are aimed at Muslims, pointing to the fact Sinhala Buddhists are having to cremate their loved ones within 24 hours, which also goes against their traditions. “Sometimes we will have to do things that we don’t like too much,” the cabinet spokesman, Minister Keheliya Rambukwella told. “Everybody has to make some kind of sacrifice during this Covid pandemic. I understand this is a very sensitive issue. Even my Muslim friends are calling me and asking me to help them. But as a government we have to take the decision based on science for the sake of all concerned.”

Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa has meanwhile instructed the authorities to find a suitable dry land to bury those dying from coronavirus, his office said in a statement. Mannar in northern Sri Lanka is thought to be considered by the authorities as a possible location. But it is not being seen as viable by the Muslim community- many of them were driven out of there by Tamil separatists in 1990. They fear that burials there will cause more tension. And Mr. Ahmed has dismissed the offer as “a carrot they are holding every time the pressure” increases. After all, the prime minister has issued similar instructions before, but Muslims are still being cremated. Meanwhile Mr. Fahim says that he still can’t come to terms with what happened to his baby son, Shaykh. “My only wish is that no other person should go through this pain. I don’t wish any other child to experience what happened to my son.”

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