Sri Lanka COVID19: Muslims face extra threat as coronavirus stirs hate

The grief-stricken family of Zubair Fathima Rinosa in Sri Lanka's capital Colombo is demanding justice and explanation after the 44-year-old deceased Muslim woman clothed to possess been COVID-19 negative two days after her body was cremated.

Mohammed Sajid, one among Rinosa's four sons, said his mother was cremated on May 5 as a part of Sri Lanka's controversial policy of mandatory cremation of all coronavirus victims in violation of traditional Islamic funeral practice.

He says his brother signed a consent form for cremation under duress from authorities.

However, two days later, Rinosa's test results showed she didn't die of coronavirus. "On May 7, we learned through a media release that there had been a mistake within the initial testing of my mother for the virus. She didn't die of COVID-19," he said.

Sajid said his father cried "painfully" after it emerged that his mother was "wrongfully" cremated.

"My father was crying nonstop. He kept saying: 'I can accept someday that she is gone, but not that she was cremated'."

Three of the nine who have died from the disease are Muslims. All of them were cremated, which matches against the Islamic tradition of burying the dead.

The Buddhist-majority south Asian island nation originally agreed on burials but amended the rules on April 11 making cremations of COVID-19 victims mandatory - a step Muslims say deprives them of their basic right .

"The family is grieving, not only have they lost her, but they need also been bereft of the essential right of burial. They were also treated very badly by the authorities," Ali Zahir Moulana, former Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) parliamentarian, told the Al Jazeera news agency.

"We urge the authorities to require all relevant precautionary measures during a way that doesn't dehumanise individuals."

The island nation's top Ulama body urged the govt to permit the burial.

"We wish to reiterate that the Muslim community stand on this matter has always been that, a Muslim deceased thanks to COVID-19, should have the choice of being buried, in line with the WHO guidelines and as implemented in additional than 180 countries, since it's an integral a part of our faith and a spiritual obligation of the community towards the deceased," All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama said during a statement.

Prominent Muslim activists and personalities have expressed their concerns against the ban on burials which they see as a part of anti-Muslim rhetoric amid the pandemic.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa's Counsel Ali Sabry said the government's cremation order was in disregard to World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines.

"If the decision-makers, having considered all facts and aspects and have reached a choice supported scientific, medical or logical concerns, I even have no issues with it and other people must suits it," he told the Al Jazeera news reports.

Buddhist nationalists and section of media have blamed Muslims, who form nearly 10 percent of the population, for the spread of the virus that has killed quite 280,000 people and infected quite four million people worldwide.

Sabry said it had been unfortunate to seek out racism raising its ugly head whenever Sri Lanka is faced with a crisis. "Unfortunately during the previous couple of weeks there has been quite lot of hate speech directed at Muslims," said Sabri, who was nominated to Parliament from the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP).

Hilmy Ahamed, vice chairman of Muslim Council of Sri Lanka , told Al Jazeera "extremist Buddhist forces" are using their influence within the government "to punish the Muslim community".

"This is a component of their racist agenda where they're telling the remainder of the country that we'll teach the Muslims a lesson.

"There is widespread belief that Muslims didn't vote for the present government so [what is occurring now to Muslims] may be a political revenge."

In a letter to the military officer of police, organisations, including the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka and therefore the Colombo District Mosques' Federation, said social media posts and audio recordings were being circulated that were deemed hate speech, the Hindu newspaper reported last month.

The letter dated April 12 said video clips circulated on social media spread messages that urged people to refrain from buying goods from Muslim-run businesses.

Muslims have faced increased attacks from Buddhist hardliners following the top of the war between Tamil separatists and government forces in 2009.

Businesses owned by the minority community have come under fire multiple times over the last 10 years. The island nation of 21 million withdrew the Muslim halal system of certifying foods in 2013 after campaigns by Buddhist nationalists.

Following the deadly attacks on Easter Sunday last April, relations between majority Sinhala Buddhists and Muslims have deteriorated further.

Sajith Premadasa, who was the runner up within the November presidential elections, also expressed his concerns at the "religious bias".

"Every person has got to be treated equal. If we cannot uphold such moral and ethical values that are essential to a humane society, we are a failed state thanks to racism, inherent ethnic and non secular bias, and marginalisation," Premadasa posted on Twitter.

Rights groups like Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International and other international bodies have also spoken out against the "stigmatisation" of Muslims.

"[The government's position on mandatory cremation] has been criticised by four United Nations special rapporteurs as a violation of freedom of faith . The special rapporteurs noted that Sri Lankan Muslims are stigmatised and targeted with hate speech during the coronavirus pandemic," Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at HRW said during a report released late last month said.

"The threat that the coronavirus poses to all or any Sri Lankans provides the govt with a chance to enhance communal relations within the country," Ganguly said.

"To promote public safety, it is vital for the authorities to be seen as acting against discrimination, not promoting it."

The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), which is thesecond-largest inter-governmental organisation after the United Nations , expressed concerns over the reports of escalating hate speech within the country.

The OIC called on the authorities to "ensure the security , security and rights of the Muslim community, also as commitment to respect their religious practices and rituals".

Minorities and immigrants in several countries round the world, including Sri Lanka's neighbour India, have faced attacks and are blamed for the spread of the virus.

On Friday, UN chief Antonio Guterres said the pandemic has unleashed "a tsunami of hate and xenophobia, scapegoating and scaremongering".

Guterres said "anti-foreigner sentiment", "antisemitic conspiracy theories", and attacks against Muslims have increased.

Sri Lankan authorities have denied accusations of discrimination against Muslims maintaining the cremation order applied to other religious groups also , including minority Christians.

But two Catholics Oshala Lakmal Anil Herath and Ranmal Anthony Amerasinghe have challenged the cremation order within the Supreme Court in two separate petitions. Herath said the order was "arbitrary" and against the law.

"I don't want anyone to travel through the trauma and agony that my family went through over the last week."

Meanwhile, Sajid says he wants "closure and justice".

Sri Lanka: Muslims face extra threat as coronavirus stirs hate

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