The families refused to claim the bodies in protest against the government’s cremation policy, which is prohibited by Islamic law.
Sri Lanka has said it will cremate the bodies of 19 Muslim coronavirus victims, overriding families’ objections to the mandatory policy.
The island nation has seen an increase in the number of COVID-19 cases since October, with the number of infections rising more than eight times since then, to more than 29,300 and 142 dead.
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.
Rehab Mahamoor, research assistant at Amnesty International, told Al Jazeera that cremations of Muslims against their religious beliefs were “unfair”.
“International guidelines make it clear that the organs of COVID-19 victims can be buried or cremated and Sri Lanka is ready to use the pandemic to further marginalize the Muslim community,” Mahamoor added.
But the families of 19 Muslims killed by the virus refused to claim the bodies of a mortuary in the capital Colombo, triggering a decree to proceed with the cremation that was issued by Attorney General Dappula de Livera.
“The bodies of COVID-19 victims not claimed by families may be cremated under quarantine regulations,” De Livera’s spokeswoman said on Wednesday, adding that the bodies would be cremated this week.
Five were cremated on Wednesday, police said.
The policy has been challenged by Muslims, with 12 petitions filed by minority community and civil society groups before the Supreme Court.
But the Supreme Court rejected the petitions last week, without giving reasons for making the decision.
Sri Lanka’s Muslim Council said the majority of the country’s coronavirus victims were Muslims.
A council spokesperson added that community members were concerned about seeking medical help if they tested positive for COVID-19 because they did not want to be cremated.
Last month, the Organization for Islamic Cooperation urged Sri Lanka to allow Muslims to bury their family members “in accordance with their religious beliefs and obligations”.
Persistent religious tensions
Sri Lanka made COVID-19 cremations mandatory in April amid widespread fears by influential Buddhist monks – who support President Gotabaya Rajapaksa – that the burial of bodies could contaminate groundwater and spread disease.
The World Health Organization says funerals and cremations are allowed.
The method of removing the body has become a major topic of discussion in the country, with a section of the media accused of directing “anti-Muslim hysteria” and of pointing fingers at Muslims for the spread of the virus.
Following the deadly April 2019 attacks that killed more than 250 people in churches and hotels across Sri Lanka, Muslims have faced increased hostility from the Sinhala majority.
A little-known Muslim organization has been blamed for the island nation’s worst attack since the civil war between government forces and Tamil separatist fighters.
Sri Lanka has a population of around 21 million people, 10 percent of whom are Muslims.