SHAFAQNA- Soon after word began to circulate about a Muslim cemetery in the sleepy Quebec town of Saint-Apollinaire, Mayor Bernard Ouellet received some disturbing e-mails.
“Welcome to Saint ALLAH-pollinaire,” read one.
“Ha ha ha! We just lost half the value of our homes!” said another.
“This cemetery is just the embryo of other projects,” someone wrote. “These people are here to grab religious and political power.”
Mr. Ouellet, who ran the local grocery store for three decades before taking over leadership of the town of 6,000, held firm to his belief that offering Muslims a final resting spot was the right thing to do. He also realized he was facing daunting obstacles if he wanted to bring citizens around to the same way of thinking.
“It’s about fear,” Mr. Ouellet said. “I respect those fears, but they are based on ignorance of others. We want to show solidarity with [the Muslim community]. If we have a chance to help them, we should.”
The proposed cemetery has underscored the tensions over the place and future of the Muslim community in Quebec – not just the living, but even the dead. If Saint-Apollinaire has emerged as the unlikely setting for the controversy, it is because of both timing and geography.
The shooting of six worshippers at a Quebec City mosque in January highlighted a glaring problem for Muslims in the provincial capital: Despite their growing numbers and decades-long presence in the city, they had no nearby place to bury their dead. Of the six 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 solution emerged in Saint-Apollinaire, a tight-knit town intersected by one of the province’s busiest highways, about 20 minutes from Quebec City. Last fall, a local funeral director named Sylvain Roy had already reached out to Quebec City’s Muslims by offering to sell them a 65,000-square-foot plot of land behind his funeral home. By February, a tentative deal was struck.
It appeared destined to become the first tangible gesture of public support in the wake of the mosque tragedy.
“If we welcome immigrants to Quebec, we have to give them a way to have their religious rituals,” said Mr. Roy, director of Harmonia, which provides funeral services. “If we say we’re an open society and let people immigrate here, we can’t then put up barriers and decide how they’re going to dispose of their bodies.”
City council backed the project, which would involve selling the lot for $215,000, with enough room for about 1,000 burial plots. But it required a zoning change, and the rumblings of resistance started.
This week, the resistance burst into view when council held an information session on the project. Half the people in the crowd of about 200 appeared to welcome the cemetery. “We have to show ourselves to be open [and] extend a hand. We have to stop being afraid,” said a man named Serge Paradis.
Others voiced opposition in a blend of resentment and suspicion. One speaker complained of giving Muslims “VIP” treatment by allowing them their own cemetery. Others invoked terrorist attacks such as 9/11 or fears of seeing women in burkas in Saint-Apollinaire. Milling in the audience was a self-described leader of La Meute, a Quebec far-right group. A provincial police car was parked outside.
Facing the crowd at a long table was a delegation from the Muslim community of Quebec City and elsewhere in the province. Taking the microphone one by one, they tried to dispel people’s fears, calmly answering questions and making a plea for understanding. The scene was at times poignant.
“Even in death, we’re being denied our place as human beings. Don’t do that, please,” implored Boufeldja Benabdallah, a long-time Quebec City resident and co-founder of the Centre culturel islamique de Québec.
Imam Hassan Guillet, whose stirring eulogy at the funerals of three mosque victims was shared around the globe, spoke emotionally: “I ask you sincerely,” he said, “do not impose on our children the duty to have to go to Montreal each time they want to say a prayer over the tomb of their father.”
In an interview after the meeting, Imam Guillet placed the project in the context of the outpouring of solidarity after the mosque shootings. “This would be the first gesture to show we are together,” he said. “If the project is refused and we’re not allowed to be buried in this land, how are we going to be accepted to live in this land?”
While the mayor believes that a majority of people in his town quietly support the cemetery, he acknowledges that some citizens require reassurances. As with many small towns in Quebec, Saint-Apollinaire is overwhelmingly white, francophone and Catholic. The soaring silver spire of the Saint-Apollinaire Church still looms large over main street. Aside from some seasonal Mexican and Guatemalan farm workers and a few dozen Laotian and Vietnamese immigrants who settled in the area in the 1970s, minorities are few.
The proposed site is a wooded area of spruce and birch trees behind an industrial zone, cut off from the centre of town by Highway 20 and railway tracks.
If enough citizens sign a register by April 26, they can force a referendum on the zoning change.
For the mayor, the project marks a moment of reckoning. Muslims have separate sections in two non-Muslim cemeteries in the Montreal area, but the one in Saint-Apollinaire would be only the second in the province whose land is owned by the community.
The official motto of Saint-Apollinaire is “S’unir pour réussir” – uniting to succeed. Mr. Ouellet hopes his fellow citizens make it true.
“This project hurts neither the rights nor quality of life of our citizens,” he said in addressing the public meeting Wednesday night. “On the contrary, all of Quebec will recall that it was our municipality that finally allowed the Muslim community to find the serenity it had been seeking for so long.
“That,” the mayor said pointedly, “is what we call showing the best that we can be.”