By Mass L. Usuf –
Dear Mr. President,
I thank you for your leadership in handling this global pandemic and for ensuring the safety of all of us. In the midst of this challenging environment of lockdowns and quarantining, the question has arisen if the Muslim burial rights have also been ‘Quarantined’. The normal expectation when making adinistrative decisions especially on sensitive matters, is for the persons responsible to be rational, scientific, humane and reasonable.
The apparent non-observance of the above standards when deciding on the cremation of Covid-19 Muslim decedents has severely distressed the Muslim community. Any act belying rationality, science, humaneness and reasonableness merits reassessment. This is the main reason to address you, Mr. President. You are aware that dignity in death is recognised as a human right world over.
The UN General Assembly unanimously adopted a resolution on 03 April 2020, the first of its kind after the outbreak of the global pandemic. It called for ‘Global solidarity to fight the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19)’, co-sponsored by 188 nations.
Mr. President, in this resolution the General Assembly noted “with great concern” the threat to human health, safety and well-being caused by the coronavirus disease 2019 pandemic. Moreover, the resolution also emphasised the need for full respect for human rights, and stressed that there is “no place for any form of discrimination, racism and xenophobia in the response to the pandemic.”
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Chief said: “The COVID-19 pandemic should not be politicized as unity is the “only option” to defeat the disease. We should work across party lines, across religious lines”
The Assistant Director-General of UNESCO said: “UN harnesses the power of culture to inspire hope and solidarity. There can be no future without culture and it is culture that will bring us closer together.” Sri Lanka responded to this call. We are grateful to the talented musicians and singers of the armed forces and Police for being instrumental in providing entertainment for those under lockdown. Thereby, ensuring the well-being of the people as mentioned in the above UN resolution.
Religious, Minority and Human Rights
You are aware that the UN Human Rights Council expressed its position on the inconsistency of the thrice amended Ministry of Health (MoH) guidelines with regard to disposal of Covid 19 dead bodies, via the following four Special Rapporteurs:
1. Ahmed Shaheed Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief;
2. Dainius Puras Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health;
3. Fernand de Varennes Special Rapporteur on minority issues;
4. Fionnuala Ní Aoláin Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism
They in their Communique addressed to you, dated 8 April 2020, had clearly set out the circumstances relevant to each of their speciality areas impacting on the issue of cremation of Covid 19 Muslim decedents. They observed as follows:
“We are concerned that the amendment is inconsistent with the Infection Prevention and Control for the safe management of a dead body in the context of COVID-19 guideline provided by World Health Organisation (WHO Guideline). Furthermore, we are concerned of the lack of consideration provided and the lack of sensitivity in the MoH Guideline to different communities and their religious and cultural practices.”
Further, approving burial, they stated as follows:
“Method of the disposal of dead body – Under the section on Burial, WHO Guideline provides that people who have died from COVID-19 can be buried or cremated. WHO Guideline has highlighted that the dignity of the dead, their cultural and religious traditions, and their families should be respected and protected throughout. It was advised the need to apply principles of cultural sensitivity or to handle the burial or dead body in accordance with customs.”
Mr. President, I am deliberately avoiding examining the legal aspects of this issue. Though conscious of the implication of the Chapter III on Fundamental Rights enshrined in our Constitution, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), The Human Rights Charter, The Human Rights Committee and its General Comment 22 paragraph 4, the 1992 Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities and so on.
Existing Verifiable Data
As for the scientific aspect, firstly, WHO will not recommend something that would be harmful to the people. Science is based on facts and facts speak for itself. Unassailable scientific facts are different from mere hypothesis, theories or unscientific imaginative predictions.
Mr. President, it is said that some in the Sri Lanka medical circles are of the view that this is a new virus and we need time to study it. In this case, one may reasonably consider the following. This virus is now nearly six months since the outbreak. Worldwide research in highly sophisticated laboratories has been ongoing from the beginning itself. Hundreds of thousands of burials have already taken place for the last six months in several countries. No evidence of any form of water contamination has been reported. Most importantly, the WHO has not made any changes to its burial protocol and this is because burial is obviously safe.
Scientific fact is an objective and verifiable observation. It is not scientific approach for any scientist to take decisions based on unscientific postulates or subjective imaginations. Six months of intensely researched globally accumulated knowledge is available. A proper scientist would review the available data, examine the risk of complication and/or consequential morbidity or mortality etc. before arriving at an educated decision. This decision may change in the face of newly discovered data. For the present, one decides on the existing verifiable data.
So, what exactly is the problem for us here in Sri Lanka, Mr. President?
Sir, at a time when burials are taking place worldwide, it is imprudent and unethical not to permit burials. The body is disinfected and placed in a sealed body bag, and it will take several weeks for the bags to rupture. This will not allow the virus to come into contact with the soil because there will be no virus by that time. If it is placed in a coffin, it further minimises even any remote chances. There is at present no evidence, according to the WHO, to support the prevalence of the corona virus in groundwater sources or transmission through contaminated drinking water. Dr. Paba Palihawadana, Chief Epidemiologist, Ministry of Health says the virus cannot replicate in water.
Since the outbreak of the pandemic late last year, hundreds of thousands of burials have already taken place. From Latin America to North America, Europe, Asia and across the world. Even as close as neighbouring India. Had there been a serious issue, the WHO would have revisited their guidelines for the disposal of Covid 19 dead bodies. To date there is no evidence of persons having become infected from exposure to the bodies of persons who died from COVID-19 nor to transmission of the infection through water because of burial.
WHO Guideline has highlighted that the dignity of the dead, their cultural and religious traditions, and their families should be respected and protected throughout. It was advised the need to apply principles of cultural sensitivity or to handle the burial or dead body in accordance with customs
Sir, you are a devout Buddhist and I very much respect and admire you for that. You are well versed in Buddhism and I need not educate you on Buddhism. Nevertheless, the Quran teaches us to remind people about goodness as human beings are weak and may forget. The Quran mentions:
“So remind, if the reminder should benefit”
(Quran Chapter 87 Verse 9)
Therefore, may I humbly remind you of the teachings of Buddha in the Karaniya Metta Sutta (The Buddha’s Words on Loving-Kindness). The rest you know much more than me.
Personally, as a Muslim, I am deeply hurt. So are the Muslim communities both locally and internationally who have heard about the cremation. The religion of Islam respects the dead with dignity irrespective of their race, caste, colour, religion. This is exemplified below as narrated by Jabir ibn Abdullah, a companion of Prophet Muhammad:
“A funeral procession passed by us and Prophet Muhamad (peace and blessings be upon him), stood up for it and we stood because of him. We said, ‘Oh Messenger of Allah, it is the funeral procession of a Jew.’ He said, ‘When you see a funeral procession, stand.” [Bukhari]
Human rights were taught by Buddha long before the Human Rights Charter, when he said:
Sukhino vā khemino hontu: “May all beings be safe and secure”
Sabbe Satta Bhavantu Sukhitatta: “May all beings be well and happy”
I believe, in reconsidering the decision on cremation/burial you will certainly reflect on the above virtues and be the reason for freeing the Muslim community from the mental suffering (dhukka) we have been subjected to. Alternatively, Mr. President you may kindly appoint a Panel of Experts who may receive submissions from experts in the field and then arrive at a scientifically based rational decision.
Mass L. Usuf