UK coronavirus bill amended over cremation outcry from British Muslims, Jews

Britain’s Health Secretary Matt Hancock stands at the dispatch box and speaks during the Coronavirus Bill debate to socially distanced MPs in the House of Commons in London on March 23, 2020. (AFP)
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Updated 25 March 2020

UK coronavirus bill amended over cremation outcry from British Muslims, Jews

  • The government decision follows Muslim, Jewish protests over burial rites amid coronavirus outbreak
  • The Coronavirus Bill is set to go before Parliament this week, and would give Johnson’s government the most power of any UK government during peacetime

LONDON: The UK government has changed elements of a forthcoming bill, a reaction to the outbreak of coronavirus in the country, after complaints from religious minorities that it would infringe on their burial rites. 
The Coronavirus Bill is set to go before Parliament this week, and would give the government of Prime Minister Boris Johnson the most power of any UK government during peacetime. 
Among the more controversial elements of the initial proposal was a section that would have given local authorities the power to cremate the bodies of coronavirus victims without consent, and “streamlining” the process by removing the need for a medical certificate to do so — something expressly illegal in the UK since 1961. 
Such legislation would have put the government at odds not only with the families of victims who may oppose such a move, but also with several religious groups, including the UK’s Muslim and Jewish communities, as cremation is not permitted as a form of burial in either faith.
On Monday, the UK’s Health Secretary Matt Hancock told the House of Commons that this section of the bill was to be amended.
He told fellow MPs that the government recognized the need to “accede to the wishes of the families and faith communities,” and so would not be pushing this section of the bill.
MP Naz Shah, the shadow women and equalities minister from the opposition Labour Party, welcomed the move on Twitter.

“I’m so relieved that the government have listened to what we’ve said about religious burials for Muslim and Jewish people, and have brought forward an amendment to address our concerns,” she tweeted.
The Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) echoed Shah’s sentiments, with its Secretary-General Harun Khan praising her for her efforts in getting the government to reverse its position.
“The MCB warmly welcomes the UK Government’s amendment which recognizes the importance of ensuring faith communities are able to bury the deceased instead of cremating in the event of significant deaths due to coronavirus,” Khan said in a statement.

“During this national crisis, we are appreciative of this reassurance by our government and its important efforts to listen to and work constructively with faith communities. 
“We pay tribute to the hard work of Naz Shah, MP for Bradford West, for raising the issue alongside others, and the All-Party Parliamentary Group on British Muslims for mobilizing support for this important change.
“The COVID-19 pandemic will continue to present unprecedented challenges, and at a time of national crisis, this type of constructive engagement will continue to yield positive results for the whole of society.”

Marie van der Zyl, president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, echoed the MCB’s sentiments.
“We would like to extend our deep and sincere thanks to the government for working with us to amend this legislation to protect the final wishes and religious freedoms of the deceased. There could be few things more sacred,” Van der Zyl said in a statement.

“In particular, we are grateful to Health Secretary Matt Hancock, Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick, Paymaster General Penny Mordaunt, Communities Minister Simon Clarke and the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion and Belief Rehman Chisthti for acting speedily to address the concerns raised by the Jewish and Muslim communities.
“Our thanks also go to Naz Shah MP for her own proposed amendment. This has been an inspiring example of interfaith solidarity and responsive government. It shows, even in these difficult times for our nation, why we have so much reason to be proud of this wonderful country.”

Militant attack on Afghan prison frees hundreds

Afghan security personnel in front of a prison gate after an attack by Daesh that had freed hundreds in Jalalabad, east of Kabul, on Monday. (AP)
Updated 35 min 32 sec ago

Militant attack on Afghan prison frees hundreds

  • The attack, reportedly by Daesh, took place hours before end of cease-fire

KABUL: Militants have stormed a prison in eastern Afghanistan and released hundreds of prisoners, officials said.

The attack on the main prison in Jalalabad, in Nangarhar province, where several hundred Daesh fighters have been detained, began on Sunday afternoon with a car bomb detonated at the entrance to the jail.
The attack came hours before the end of a three-day ceasefire between the Afghan government and the Taliban, who immediately denied any involvement in the assault. Several Western media outlets reported that the Daesh had claimed responsibility.
The Nangarhar governor’s spokesman, Attaullah Khogyani, told Arab News that there was still gunfire on Monday morning, and that more than 20 civilians and personnel and three attackers have died in the fighting.
Two local security sources speaking on condition of anonymity said that nearly half of the prison’s 1,500 inmates managed to flee.
They said 20 assailants made their way into the prison and a number of explosions were heard from inside the jail.
Residents said one group of attackers was firing on the jail from a nearby building and they reported heavy and sustained exchanges of small fire.
According to Khogyani, most of the escapees have been caught. He gave no further details about the attack.
The assault comes amid official claims that Daesh leaders have been arrested or killed in recent months, notably in Nangarhar, which used to be the group’s bastion.
“This is a major embarrassment for the government, which every now and then claims to have wiped out or paralyzed the Daesh. The government needs to answer why such a high security lapse has happened,” analyst Shafiq Haqpal said.
The Eid Al-Adha ceasefire between the Taliban and Afghan government forces was a part of efforts to begin long-awaited peace talks following a US-Taliban agreement signed in Qatar in late February.
In accordance with the deal, the Taliban is releasing 1,000 Afghan troops in exchange for 5,000 militants held by President Ashraf Ghani’s government.
The process is near completion, but Kabul is refusing to free 400 remaining Taliban inmates, saying they have been behind “heinous crimes.”
After Eid prayers on Sunday, Ghani announced he would summon a traditional grand assembly, Loya Jirga, to help him decide whether the rest of Taliban prisoners should be freed.
The assembly is scheduled to start on Aug. 7. Loya Jirga has deep roots in Afghan history and tradition and is usually summoned during times of crisis or emergency.
The Taliban have voiced their opposition to the convocation of the jirga. Their Qatar-based spokesman, Suhail Shaheen, told TOLO News that Kabul’s decision would only complicate the peace process.
Afghan politicians are divided on the jirga announcement. Hamidullah Tokhi, a member of parliament from southern Zabul province, said: “The nation and parliament have deep doubts about Ghani’s goal for summoning the jirga to decide over the fate of 400 Taliban.
“All of the 4,500 Taliban already freed were involved in some sort of bloody attacks. Why did the government not ask for the jirga on the overall release of the Taliban?”
“Summoning the jirga now is a treason to this country and a clear blocking of the peace process,” he said.
Torek Farhadi, who served in the previous government as an adviser, said Ghani hopes that the victory of Democrats in the upcoming US elections, would sideline Zalmay Khalilzad, the US special envoy for Afghanistan who struck the Qatar deal with the Taliban, allowing Kabul to be in charge of the peace process.
“We should have one Loya Jirga to discuss substantive matters on peace with the Taliban and the type of future regime,” Farhadi said, adding that the Taliban, too, should participate in the assembly. “This meeting would be like a half-baked national dialogue (if it is) conducted by only one side of the conflict.”