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Muslim cemetery to be built in Quebec City as long struggle for land ends

Boufeldja Benabdallah, from left to right, interim coordinator at the Centre Islamique de Quebec, Quebec City mayor Regis Labeaume and Mohamed Labidi shake hands after they announced the establishment of a Muslim cemetery, August 4, 2017.

Jacques Boissinot/THE CANADIAN PRESS

A Quebec City Muslim community that in seven months had six members killed in an armed assault, faced a series of threats and hateful vandalism and was rejected in an attempt to obtain a cemetery has finally received some good news: They now have a place to bury their dead.

In an unexpected deal brokered in a matter of days by Quebec City Mayor Régis Labeaume, the city has sold a 5,706-square-metre parcel of land where local Muslims can finally rest in peace, adjacent to a Catholic cemetery.

Unlike a recent deal to buy a parcel of land in the nearby town of Saint-Apollinaire, which was blocked in rezoning by a neighbourhood referendum, this land is already zoned for burials. The $270,000 cheque for the land from the Centre culturel islamique de Québec has already been cashed, Mr. Labeaume said. A final rubber stamp by Quebec City council controlled by the mayor will come by the end of summer. The community should be able to start building an access road for another $200,000 this fall.

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Mr. Labeaume announced the deal Friday flanked by leaders of the local Muslim community to mark the end of more than 20 years of struggle to obtain their own burial ground. "When you made this announcement, Mr. Mayor, that you accepted our offer to end our years of waiting and suffering, I had trouble … sincerely had trouble, controlling my emotions," said Boufeldja Benabdallah, the interim co-ordinator of the cemetery project as he paused to choke back tears. "You delivered on your promise."

In January a gunman stormed the Quebec City mosque where Mr. Benabdallah worships, killing six men and wounding eight others. In the wake of the shooting many Canadians were shocked to learn the community had nowhere to bury its dead in Quebec's capital and second-largest city. Five of the men were returned to their home countries in Africa for burial, while one was buried near Montreal.

A few days after the shooting Mr. Labeaume promised he would find a place for a Muslim cemetery.

The community thought it had found a solution in the nearby town of Saint-Apollinaire after closing a deal to buy a small parcel of land near another cemetery. Three weeks ago the Muslim community was left distraught after residents near the proposed burial ground voted 19-16 to reject a rezoning that would allow the land to be used as a cemetery. Mohamed Labidi, president of the cultural centre, said fear and discrimination won the day. He vowed to press on for years, if necessary, to complete the project. He also contemplated a court challenge.

In the wake of the vote Mr. Labeaume expressed disgust but did not hint he would move so quickly. "This is unbelievable. Everyone has the right to bury their dead," he said.

Within days Mr. Labeaume turned his attention to the parcel of land near the Notre-Dame-de-Belmont Cemetery. The funeral company that runs the cemetery bought a larger parcel in the area a few years ago and in 2015 ceded back a small piece to the city in lieu of paying a 10-per-cent tax on the new acquisition.

Last Friday, Mr. Labeaume called the Muslim community leaders in for a meeting on Monday where he presented the deal. The leaders quickly accepted. Mr. Labeaume had imposed a five-day deadline for approval by the mosque and his own executive committee to prevent things from dragging on. "I wanted it done before I go on vacation," Mr. Labeaume said.

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Mr. Labidi was joyful Friday. "This is historic and a great day for the old capital. It is the culmination of 20 years of tireless work by volunteers. To all the people from across Quebec City, the province and Canada who lent us their support in recent weeks, we thank you," he said. "And we thank the mayor who delivered."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau applauded the mayor for taking the lead. "An important and courageous step for dignity and decency. Congratulations Mayor Labeaume for taking action," Mr. Trudeau said on social media.

Video: Couillard condemns hateful package sent to Quebec mosque (The Canadian Press)
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About the Author
National correspondent

Les Perreaux joined the Montreal bureau of the Globe and Mail in 2008. He previously worked for the Canadian Press covering national and international affairs, including federal and Quebec politics and the war in Afghanistan. More

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