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PM Imran Khan’s state visit results in Sri Lanka ending forced cremations

ISLAMABAD/COLOMBO: A couple of days after Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s official visit to Sri Lanka, the country announced Friday an end to the forced cremations — a win for the island’s minority Muslims and their funeral rites.

Dozens of demonstrators had used PM Imran Khan’s February 23 visit as an opportunity to call attention to the Sri Lankan government’s disregard for Islamic burial customs and carried a mock coffin.

Traditionally, Muslims bury their dead facing Makkah. Sri Lanka’s majority Buddhists — who are strong backers of the current government — are typically cremated. Similar customs are practised by the Hindu population of the country.

Sri Lanka had first banned burials in April 2020 over concerns — which experts said were baseless — by influential Buddhist monks that the practice could contaminate groundwater and spread the virus, leading to an outcry by members of the South Asian nation’s Muslim community who constitute 10% of the 21 million population.

While health minister Pavithra Wanniarachchi did not give a reason in her announcement reversing the ban, official sources said the Pakistani premier had raised the subject with both President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa during his trip earlier this week.

In response to the policy change, PM Imran Khan thanked his Sri Lankan counterparts. “I… welcome the Sri Lankan govt’s official notification allowing the burial option for those dying of Covid 19,” he said on Twitter.

Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi in a tweet said Pakistan was grateful to Sri Lanka’s leadership for allowing the option of burial for victims of COVID-19.

“Indeed it is these very principles of mutual understanding, respect and humanity that bring relationships to thrive and prosper,” Qureshi had said.

The 57-member Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) had also raised the forced cremation policy at the United Nations in Geneva this week. The organisation had raised similar issues in April last year.

In December 2020, authorities ordered the cremation of at least 19 Muslim COVID-19 victims, including a baby, after their families refused to claim the bodies from a hospital morgue.

Muslim community leaders say more than half the country’s 459 COVID-19 victims were from the Muslim minority.

They attribute the disproportionate number of fatalities to a fear of seeking treatment, and in particular, to the fear of being cremated should they die of the disease.

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