Dear Hon Minister of Health, Mrs. Pavithra Wanniarachi.
In the name of Justice, I write this letter on behalf of the beleaguered population of our two million strong Sri Lankan Muslim community.
The Muslims of Sri Lanka – descendants of as far and wide as Morocco to Java, who now constitute nearly 10 percent of the island’s population, have been a peace-loving community since their advent in the 7th century and have always played a part at the forefront in safeguarding the interests of Mother Lanka.
The outstanding contributions made by visionary Muslim political leaders to the country in general and the community in particular, are worthy of emulation. In the pre-independent era, T.B. Jayah played a historical role in the struggle for Independence. Such a stance prompted the Hon. Leader of the House SWRD Bandaranaike to pay the highest tribute referring to Jayah, when he said: “Credit for the attainment of independence should undoubtedly go to T. B. Jayah for his historic speech in passing the Dominion Bill”.
The Late Mudaliar Sinne Lebbe, MP for Batticaloa tabled a motion in the State Council on January 16th, 1948 suggesting that the Lion Flag of Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe which was taken to Britain in 1815, should be adopted as the official flag of free Lanka. Subsequently, Prime Minister D.S.Senanayake unfurled the Lion Flag at the Octagon (Pattirippuwa) during the Independence celebration held in Kandy on February 12th, 1948 – the same flag which is respected, honoured and held in high esteem by every citizen of Sri Lanka.
It is this same Muslim community that is now traumatized by the government’s mandatory rules, which expressly states that cremation is even obligatory upon communities that usually honour their dead by way of burying, in line with the upholding of basic human rights, and that of which is taking place globally in every other country except Sri Lanka.
As you are a lawyer with legal background, I appeal sincerely and humbly to draw your attention to Article 12 of the Constitution of Sri Lanka which states that all persons are equal before the law and are entitled to the equal protection of the law. The article further notes that no citizen shall be discriminated against on the grounds of race and religion.
I would also like to draw attention to Article 27 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) on the rights of minorities stressing those religious minorities shall not be denied the right, in community with the other members of their group, to enjoy their own culture as well as to profess and practice their own religion.
Ironically, Sri Lanka is one of the signatories of the said Covenant which commits to respect the civil and political rights of individuals, including the right to life, freedom of religion, freedom of speech and freedom of assembly.
In Islam, human dignity is given pre-eminence and grants certain rights and privileges to humans before they are even born, and others after their death. We have a code of conduct for living, which includes very specific ways to dispose of our bodies upon death as we believe that our souls return to God once we depart from this earth.
Hence whether dead or alive, the human body must be given due respect and dignity. This importance of the human body is illustrated, for instance, in the Qur’ān 5:31. There, it is narrated that when Cain was unsure of how to deal with the body of his brother Abel—whom he had murdered—God sent a message in the form of a raven. God used the raven to dig the ground to bury another raven, thus indirectly showing Cain how to bury his brother’s body in a dignified way.
It is also established in Islamic beliefs that burying the dead is by way of honoring them due to the words of God when He enumerates His blessings upon man, “Did we not make the earth a home for the living and the dead” [77:25-26]
Muslims consider burial as sacrosanct and burying the dead is a communal obligation which if fulfilled, the sin (in the lack of not performing duties) and responsibility is lifted from the rest of the community. Hence, the cremation of our dead comes as a painful and unnecessary mental anguish for the families of the victims of this virus, and for the community as a whole.
As per the WHO Guidelines on COVID-19, over 185 countries around the world including many predominantly Buddhist countries, have been burying the remains of victims. Moreover, neither there are no scientific data to support the claim that COVID-19 can spread through dead bodies nor any credible evidence of microbiological contamination of groundwater from burial.
The Muslim community of Sri Lanka is not seeking unjustifiable demands from the government. All what we are asking for is a dignified way of disposing of our dead by way of burial in line with our religious beliefs and obligations. From Islamic perspective, mandatory cremation is desecration of the deceased.
Hon Minister of Justice, we solicit your kind cooperation to offer redress to our community’s grievances and recommend the technical committee of your Ministry to rescind the mandatory cremation against the burial rights of Muslims on humanitarian grounds.
We sincerely hope the spirit of “Audi alteram partem” (Listen to the other side / Let the voice of the other side be heard as well) will prevail, and benevolence will supersede over intransigence.
Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere – Martin Luther King Jr.