Imran Khan visits Sri Lanka while Muslims demand burial rights

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) – Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan arrived in Sri Lanka on Tuesday as Muslims protested near the president’s office demanding that the government allow people who died of COVID-19 to be buried instead of cremated.

Sri Lankan Muslims hope Khan will address the burial issue when he meets his colleagues on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Khan will meet President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his older brother, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, during his two-day visit.

When Khan, Pakistan’s Muslim-majority prime minister, began his visit, some 2,000 protesters gathered near the president’s office in Colombo, demanding that burials be allowed for Muslims who died of COVID-19.

“He knows the situation and we think he will discuss the matter with the President and Prime Minister of Sri Lanka,” said opposition lawmaker Mujibur Rahman by telephone.

He said the government continues to challenge calls for burials, despite a pledge made two weeks ago by Mahinda Rajapaksa to allow them. So far, the government has not allowed it.

Khan previously welcomed Rajapaksa’s assurance in a tweet.

Sri Lanka is a predominantly Buddhist country where it is customary for Buddhists and Hindus, the second largest religious group, to cremate the dead. Muslims represent about 7% of the country’s 22 million inhabitants.

The government demanded the cremation of all people who died of COVID-19, saying that the virus in human remains could contaminate groundwater.

Muslims and non-Muslims protested the rule last year, calling it unscientific and insensitive to Muslim religious beliefs. The United Nations and the United States have also raised concerns about the government.

The World Health Organization and groups of doctors in Sri Lanka have said that victims of COVID-19 can be buried or cremated.

Sri Lanka has reported 80,516 cases of coronavirus, including 450 deaths.