Sri Lanka allows burial of virus victims after protests

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Protesters hold placards during a demonstration against the Sri Lankan government's now scrapped policy of forced cremations for Muslims

Sri Lanka on Friday buried two Muslims who died of Covid-19, formally ending its policy of forced cremations that had sparked international outrage over the violation of Islamic funeral rites.

Community leader Ali Zahir Moulana said a 55-year-old man and a 66-year-old woman were the first to be buried in coastal Oddamavadi, 300 kilometres (187 miles) east of Colombo.

"Thank God," Moulana told AFP. "Finally, we have got burial rights."

The Sri Lankan government banned burials of Covid-19 victims in April, despite expert assurances they would not spread the virus, implementing a policy of forced cremations.

Faced with mounting criticism, the government then planned to bury virus victims on a remote islet in the country's north, but that move drew opposition Wednesday from both locals and the Muslims.

Locals objected to their tiny islet being used as a graveyard for the pandemic and the Muslims said they wanted their loved ones buried on the mainland.

Sri Lanka's Muslims, who make up 10 percent of its 21 million people, challenged the policy of forced cremations, pointing out that the practice is forbidden under Islamic law.

More than half of the country's 489 virus deaths have been Muslims, often because they were reluctant to seek medical help, fearing they would be cremated if they were identified as Covid patients.

The policy was revoked last week after a visit from Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, who urged Colombo to respect Muslims' religious funeral rites, but implementation was carried out only on Friday.

A top police official confirmed that the burials began at Oddamavadi in the island's east and said at least another 27 bodies of Muslims held at hospital morgues will be buried shortly.

Ahead of Khan's visit to Colombo, the 57-member Organisation of Islamic Cooperation in February criticised the cremations policy at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, citing similar religious concerns.

Sri Lanka's majority Buddhists, strong backers of the current government, are typically cremated, as are Hindus. Hardliners within the Buddhist community had argued that burials of virus victims could spread the virus through ground water, an argument debunked by experts.

In December, authorities ordered the cremation of at least 19 Muslim Covid-19 victims after their families refused to claim the bodies from a hospital morgue in protest against the forced cremations policy.

By Friday, Sri Lanka had recorded more than 84,000 coronavirus infections, with 489 related deaths.

aj/axn