Victims of COVID-19 fill Muslim cemeteries in France

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Randa Takieddine

Kabtane noted that the management of cemeteries in France is municipal and each mayor must decide for his/her own town

PARIS: The closure of France’s borders with some African countries due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) has created problems regarding the burial of deceased Muslims of North African origin.

Since the COVID-19 outbreak, Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia, which all have large numbers of immigrants in France, have refused the repatriation of their deceased. This in turn has led to the filling up of Muslim cemeteries in France.

According to the president of the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM), Mohammed Moussaoui, there are 600 areas for Muslim tombs in France; the tombs face Makkah and are distributed over 35,600 municipalities.

Suspending the repatriation of the deceased from North African countries has caused distress to Muslim families because of the lack of space for Muslims in French cemeteries. Many of those families have had to place their relatives’ bodies in morgues as they wait for transport back to their homelands.

Kamal Kabtane, the imam at the Grand Mosque of Lyon, explained to Arab News that there are only limited areas in Muslim cemeteries.

No repatriation

Most families are unable to send their relatives back to their homelands and this has resulted in many Muslims being buried in France even though not all French towns have Muslim areas in their cemeteries. This of course has in turn led to the few Muslim cemeteries having no more burial spaces.

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Kabtane said: “We had to find quick solutions for these problems. We had to bury them with non-Muslims and explain to their families that maybe we would be able to move them later. In some cases, many families who want to bury their loved ones in their homelands have put them temporarily in morgues.

“In Lyon, we have fewer than a thousand spaces, and I raised this issue to try to find solutions. We must think in the long term and for all those who were born here and consider France their homeland. We must establish genuine high-capacity Muslim cemeteries oriented toward Makkah, and not just small areas for Muslims.”

Kabtane noted that the management of cemeteries in France is municipal and each mayor must decide for his/her own town.
The Republican Principle clearly mandates the neutrality of cemeteries. One’s religion is unrecognizable in cemeteries apart from Muslim areas and the ones for Jews who had their own cemeteries before the 1905 law, the French Secularity Law.

Ministries cannot give orders to mayors, explains Kabtane; they make the laws but mayors make the decisions concerning cemeteries.
Moussaoui told Arab News that he had asked President Emmanuel Macron to leave the cemetery problems to prefects because discussing the issue with the prefects would be easier than doing so with 35,600 mayors.

Macron replied that he had no political power to divest mayors of their prerogatives. Moussaoui then explained that the agreed-upon solution was to discuss the issue with the mayors in the presence of the prefect. Thus it is a matter of teamwork among the state, the municipalities, and the CFCM.

Moussaoui added: “We are managing the current situation by finding solutions with the help, whenever possible, of the Ministry of Interior. As for the future, we will discuss the issue with mayors and public authorities once we have the opportunity to meet again which could be in July or September, depending on the mayors.”

Moussaoui insists, however, that there is available space to bury the dead even if some say otherwise. “People always find places to bury their loved ones in Muslim plots, but the situation is simply tense. We can always find places through negotiating,” he said. “There are others who prefer to put their dead in morgues. Those are parents of foreigners who were born here. They have chosen not to bury them in France and are waiting for the borders to open before repatriating their bodies. The CFCM had asked these families to bury their loved ones and wait until they can exhume the bodies when the borders reopen instead of leaving them in morgues.”

Djamel Djemai, of the Muslim funeral services in Pierrefitte, north of Paris, is against this idea. “The truth is that to be buried in a certain town, you must have either lived or died there. Requesting exemptions and being buried in other towns is complicated. City governments often refuse to enlarge Muslim areas and exemptions are often denied. We realize that the large number of deaths due to COVID-19 has made things even more complicated,” he said.

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