by Saman Indrajith
Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa was told in Parliament yesterday not to play the race card with the sensitive issue of cremating Muslim COVID-19 victims to score political points by rousing communal disharmony.
Justice Minister Ali Sabry said that the issue had been very sensitive to Muslims as cremation was in violation of Islamic burial rights, and asked the Opposition Leader not to play politics with such issues.
Minister Sabry said so after Opposition Leader Premadasa raised the issue of cremating Muslims, during the debate on two new regulations under the Medical Ordinance.
Opposition Leader Premadasa: “While other countries united in their battle against COVID-19, we got divided. The World Health Organisation permitted both cremation and burial of COVID-19 victims. The Health Minister has repeatedly stated that she followed WHO guidelines. Muslims were cremated here. That is a sin. Not only that there was a rumour being circulated that COVID-19 was spread by the Muslims,”
Health Minister Pavithra Wannirachchi:
That is a technical term in health science. We are ready to change some practices within the guidelines.
Opposition Leader Premadasa:
Minister Ali Sabry should know that there was a committee of three experts Profs Vajira Dissanayake, N. Sherif and Ravindra Fernando. They were asked to give an impartial decision on the matter. It is not there yet. The issue had been used to create a communal and racist wave. That is the truth.
NFF MP Mohamed Muzammil:
You should not raise communal issues. There is no such statement by any.
SLPP Kurunegala District MP Shantha Bandara:
People have faith in this Parliament. You should not raise communal issues here. That is ugly.
Minister Ali Sabry: COVID-19 is a challenge not only to this country but to the entire world. We are facing the challenge. There is anguish among the Muslims about cremations. Yet, it is not good to politicise the issue. A group of very senior doctors was sent by the government to the WHO and made a request to amend their guideline on cremations. That was six months back. They did not go there for political reasons and the WHO pointed out that there was nothing political but they viewed the issue from scientific perspective only. They identified it as ‘fear of unknown’ and told our delegation that the matters related to COVID-19 were actually an evolving science. They promised us to consider the amending of guidelines in six months. We are working towards that purpose. Please look at this issue in a humanitarian perspective and have patience.
SJB Colombo District MP Mujubur Rahman: Six months have lapsed since the call to appoint that committee. It is not appointed yet. Please appoint that committee and allow the Muslims to bury their kith and kin. Already nine Muslims have been cremated. This number will increase in the coming days. This is a sin. Minister Sabry if you die from COVID-19 you would be cremated; if I died of COVID-19, I would be cremated. This is a serious issue. We should change this without further delay.
We conducted several rounds of discussions with experts. As Minister Sabry pointed out we were asked to wait for six months. That waiting time is now over. The committee is scheduled to meet this week again. We adhered to scientific guidelines and gave priority to them over cultural norms. But as soon as there is no danger we are ready to amend those guidelines if the experts tell us so.