Muslims Seek New Burial Ground, and a Small Town Balks

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Dr. Amjad Bahnassi on the plot of land that the Islamic Society is trying to buy to build a Muslim cemetery in Dudley, Mass. CreditM. Scott Brauer for The New York Times

DUDLEY, Mass. — When Dr. Amjad Bahnassi, a psychiatrist who lives in the central Massachusetts city of Worcester, wants to visit his son’s grave, he braces for the drive to the Muslim burial ground in Enfield, Conn., about 60 miles away. It is the nearest cemetery devoted solely to Islamic burials — and, he said, it is filling up.

Dr. Bahnassi, the chairman of the board of the Islamic Society of Greater Worcester, knew the area’s Muslims needed a closer place to bury their dead. The group thought it had found one in rural Dudley, about half an hour away: a patch of more than 50 acres, past a sweet corn stand and deep blue ponds, where there is unused farmland and wetlands hidden from the road by trees and tangled bushes.

But the organization’s proposal to build a cemetery there became a lightning rod in this small town. It was denounced at meetings and ultimately turned down by the Zoning Board of Appeals, prompting charges of bigotry and drawing scrutiny from the United States attorney for Massachusetts, who announced a civil rights investigation on Aug. 18 into the town’s actions.

“I’ve been here since 1983,” Dr. Bahnassi, 56, a Syrian immigrant and an American citizen, said last week as he stood on the land. “I don’t deserve to die here?”

Officials insist that they have been unfairly portrayed as biased against the Muslims, and say the society did not have standing to seek a permit for the cemetery because of a provision giving the town the right of first refusal for the tract, which belongs to Annabelle Moninski, a private landowner.

“This is America,” Paul Joseph, a selectman, said at a meeting last Monday. “Anybody that wants to can make any accusation they want to, and that has happened consistently in this situation.”

As the number of American Muslims increases and immigrant Muslims age, groups have sought to construct their own cemeteries, which are often less expensive than other facilities and are familiar with Muslim traditions including quick burials, bodies facing Mecca and, when allowed locally, no coffins.

But from Minnesota to Texas — and even last week in Georgia — such proposals have been met with swells of opposition, similar to disputes over new mosques or schools, raising the specter of exclusion even for the dead.

In Covington, Ga., hundreds of people packed a public hearing last Monday on a proposed 135-acre development for a mosque and cemetery. According to the local NBC affiliate, residents expressed concerns about “bombings and beheadings” and how to “draw the line between innocent Muslims and radical Muslims.”

Other tense scenes played out in 2014 in Murfreesboro, Tenn. — although challenges to the cemetery there were rejected by a judge — and last summer in Farmersville, Tex., where a cemetery project is moving forward despite an angry meeting at which one woman pronounced, according to news reports, “People don’t trust Muslims.”

“This is part of a wider anxiety over integration and the place of Muslims in America and the extent to which Muslims are allowed to carve spaces in the country that are their own, for their own rituals and their own community,” said Leor Halevi, an associate professor of history at Vanderbilt University who has studied Muslim death rituals.

Opponents of such projects cite concerns about zoning rules, water quality or traffic impact. But advocates say their proposals are drawing unfair scrutiny, which they say is bias by another name.

“Usually it’s couched in terms of parking or groundwater or traffic,” said Ibrahim Hooper, the spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “When you scratch the surface, generally you find that there’s more to it than that.”

A report on religious discrimination published by the Justice Department in July cited concerns that worshipers “often face unlawful barriers in the zoning and building process.” In January, a judge in Minnesota found that Castle Rock Township’s rejection of a proposed Muslim cemetery was “arbitrary and capricious.”

In July, the Justice Department filed suit against Bensalem Township, Pa., saying officials had violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which bans discrimination against religious groups in zoning, when denying zoning approval for a proposed mosque. The same month, the department released a report on that law that said, “There is particularly severe discrimination faced by Muslims in land use.”

Carmen Ortiz, the United States attorney here, is looking to see whether Dudley violated the same law by placing “unreasonable barriers to, and ultimately denying, their request for a conditional use permit to establish an Islamic cemetery in the town,” according to a statement.

After the Islamic Society applied for a permit in January, residents expressed concerns about traffic, noise and the effect that buried bodies could have on nearby wells or wetlands.

“You want a Muslim cemetery?” one resident said at a meeting in February, according to WBUR, a Boston public radio station. “Fine. Put it in your backyard. Not mine.”

The Islamic Society, which runs one of two mosques in Worcester, says that a Dudley cemetery would make it much easier for Muslims in the area to bury and visit their dead, and that the group plans to use only six to 12 acres of the tract as a burial ground.

The group says it would most likely bury 10 to 15 people a year (although an early estimate mentioned 16,000 plots) and has agreed to comply with applicable burial regulations and to accommodate some of the town’s concerns, like using only a small part of the land for the cemetery.

But at a meeting in June, the Zoning Board refused to grant the group a permit, saying that the town had a right of first refusal on the land, which had once been used for agriculture, and that proper procedure for the sale had not been followed.

The Islamic Society filed a lawsuit against the town in land court challenging that claim and asserting that it did not need a permit in the first place. The group’s lawyer, Jason Talerman, has said it will consider filing a civil rights claim.

“All of the other reasons for denying it are red herrings,” Mr. Talerman said in an interview. “The real reasons are because my clients are Muslim and this is an Islamic cemetery.”

A lawyer for the town, John Davis, said the United States attorney’s investigation would not find evidence of bias.

“These are elected, appointed town officials that are doing their due diligence,” Mr. Davis said, adding, “The application is taking this turn, and now they’re being lambasted as if they’re simply trying to keep Muslims out of town.”

The dispute has drawn unusual attention to this college town, where the population of about 11,500 is 95 percent white, and some residents say they are being viewed unfairly.

“Pope Francis could call us tomorrow and say, ‘We want to put a cemetery there’; there’s not going to be a cemetery there,” said John Briare, a resident who wants the town to preserve the land for agriculture.Muslims Seek New Burial Ground,

Lawyers for the Islamic Society and for the town’s Board of Selectmen have been negotiating in closed-door sessions, and both sides declined to comment on the specifics of the talks. At recent meetings, the selectmen have deferred action on the question, which must be resolved by the end of October, on whether to buy the land for the offered price of $287,000, which would require approval from voters.

The Islamic Society, after its own soul-searching, plans to continue the effort.

“There’s debate in our community — should we do this or not?” Dr. Bahnassi said. “Most of us reach the conclusion that we have to do it. We have to do it for our existence, for our future, for our children.”

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