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Quebec town rejects plan to build Muslim cemetery in narrow vote

Mustapha Shakni, left, and Bruno Fortin talk to Henri Baril at his residence as they knock on Saint-Apollinaire doors to explain to citizens the need for a Muslim cemetery on June 30.

Francis Vachon/The Globe and Mail

Residents in Saint-Apollinaire, Que., have rejected a proposal to open a Muslim-run cemetery in their town, dealing a setback to a Muslim community still recovering from a tragic mass shooting six months ago.

The fate of the contentious cemetery project rested in the hands of only 49 eligible voters, and in the end, only 36 turned out to cast ballots. In a referendum on a zoning change that would have allowed the burial ground, 16 people voted Yes and 19 voted No; one ballot was spoiled.

"Ignorance and misunderstanding have won the day," Mohamed Labidi, president of the Islamic Cultural Centre of Quebec City, said in an interview on Sunday night. "This is very disappointing. It was just a cemetery. How could we arrive at this result?"

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Related: Proposed Muslim cemetery highlights tensions in Quebec community

Mr. Labidi said his group would consider going to court to challenge the case. "We are Canadian citizens just like everyone else. Why are we being treated differently? We're now starting over at zero. We will fight."

The cemetery in Saint-Apollinaire was to be one of the first tangible signs of co-habitation in the aftermath of the mosque shooting in January that took the lives of six Muslim worshippers in Quebec City.

Bernard Ouellet, mayor of the town of 6,000, said he had hoped the cemetery would become a symbol of welcome and acceptance toward the Muslim community. He acknowledged he had hoped until the end that the project would pass.

"I see this as a phenomenon of fear," he said about the referendum outcome. "People put all Muslims in the same basket and see them as radicals. I am disappointed."

The referendum in the small town tapped into an emotional discussion over the place of the Muslim community in Quebec. The group behind the cemetery project, the Islamic Cultural Centre, operated the Quebec City mosque where the six worshippers were killed. The shooting highlighted a problem for Muslims in the provincial capital: Despite their growing numbers and generational roots in the city, they had no nearby place to bury their dead. Of the six shooting victims, five were repatriated to their homelands and one was interred in the only Muslim-run cemetery in the province, located in suburban Montreal, a three-hour drive away.

A solution emerged in Saint-Apollinaire, about a 20-minute drive from Quebec City, where a local funeral director offered to sell the centre a plot of land for $215,000.

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The Saint-Apollinaire city council unanimously approved the project but it required a zoning change, opening the door to a referendum. Enough citizens signed a register to force the vote. Only those whose properties adjoined the proposed cemetery site were eligible to cast ballots.

The debate polarized opinion in the community. To proponents, the project became a symbol of Muslims' efforts to integrate into Quebec.

Opponents voiced fears the cemetery would be the gateway to the arrival of mosques and veiled women into their tight-knit Quebec town, which has experienced little immigration. An information meeting in March heard citizens express views that a cemetery for Muslims showed they were getting preferential treatment.

The controversy reached beyond the town. Cardinal Gérald Cyprien Lacroix, the archbishop of Quebec City, spoke out in favour of the project over the weekend, saying Muslims had roots in the area going back three generations.

"Why deny a right to those who want a cemetery of their own, where they can be buried according to their own rituals? It takes away nothing from anyone else. It's a mark of respect for another religion," the archbishop told a Quebec City newspaper. "Why should it be difficult in this vast territory that is Quebec to have a second cemetery that belongs to them, a little piece of land where they can have a burial according to their rituals, respecting their own traditions?"

While the cemetery in Saint-Apollinaire was to be run by the Islamic Cultural Centre, Muslims in the Quebec City area recently gained the option of burying their loved ones in a non-denominational burial ground in the area. This month, a funeral home inaugurated a Muslim section with 500 plots within its cemetery in Saint-Augustin-de-Desmaures, west of Quebec City.

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It is the fourth such Muslim section to open in a non-denominational cemetery in Quebec. The other three are in the Montreal area.

While these Muslim sections do offer an option for Muslim burial, the Islamic cultural Centre of Quebec City said it favoured owning and operating its own cemetery, according to its own religious practices and customs.

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About the Author

Ingrid Peritz has been a Montreal-based correspondent for The Globe and Mail since 1998. Her reporting on the plight of Canadians suffering from the damaging effects of the drug thalidomide helped victims obtain federal compensation and earned The Globe and Mail a National Newspaper Award, Canadian Journalism Foundation award, and the Michener Award for public service. More

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