The families have refused to claim the bodies in protest against the government’s cremation policy, which is prohibited under Islamic law.
Sri Lanka said it would incinerate the bodies of 19 Muslim coronavirus victims, overriding families’ objections against the mandatory policy.
The island nation has seen an increase in COVID-19 cases since October, with the number of infections rising more than eightfold since then to more than 29,300 and 142 deaths.
The bodies of coronavirus victims are claimed by families and then cremated, a practice prohibited by Islamic law, under the strict supervision of health authorities.
But the families of 19 Muslims killed by the virus have refused to claim the bodies from a morgue in the capital Colombo, prompting an edict to proceed with the cremation that was issued by Attorney General Dappula de Livera.
“The bodies of COVID-19 victims unclaimed by families can be cremated in terms of quarantine regulations,” De Livera’s spokeswoman said Wednesday, adding that the bodies would be cremated this week.
Five were cremated Wednesday, police said.
The policy has been contested by Muslims, with 12 petitions filed by the minority community and civil society groups in the Supreme Court.
But the higher court rejected the petitions last week, without giving reasons for its decision.
Rehab Mahamoor, Research Assistant at Amnesty International, told Al Jazeera in Colombo that the cremation of Muslims against their religious beliefs was “unfair”.
“International guidelines clearly state that the bodies of COVID-19 victims can be buried or cremated and Sri Lanka is willing to use the pandemic to further marginalize the Muslim community,” Mahamoor added.
Sri Lanka’s Muslim Council has said that the majority of the country’s coronavirus victims were Muslim.
A spokesperson for the council added that community members were afraid to seek medical help if they tested positive for COVID-19, as they did not want to be cremated.
“It is very unfortunate that the attorney general made this arbitrary decision … in most cases, the immediate family is in quarantine and does not even have the opportunity to identify these bodies,” Hilmy Ahamed, vice president of the council told Al Jazeera from Colombo.
“Autopsies are not performed and it could cause legal complications,” he added.
Last month, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation urged Sri Lanka to allow Muslims to bury their relatives “in accordance with their religious beliefs and obligations.”
Ongoing religious tensions
Sri Lanka made COVID-19 cremations mandatory in April amid fears spread by influential Buddhist monks, who support President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, that burying the bodies could contaminate groundwater and spread the disease.
The World Health Organization states that both burials and cremations are allowed.
The method of disposing of the body has become a major topic of conversation in the country, with a section of the media accused of executing “anti-Muslim hysteria” and accusing Muslims of spreading the virus.
Following the deadly attacks in April 2019 that killed more than 250 people in churches and hotels across Sri Lanka, Muslims have faced increased hostility from the Sinhalese majority.
A little-known Muslim organization was blamed for the island nation’s worst attack since the civil war fought between government forces and Tamil separatist fighters.
Sri Lanka has a population of around 21 million, of which around 10 percent are Muslim.