BERN – Switzerland is gripped by a heated debate about the creation of cemeteries for the Muslim minority to bury their dead over complaints that the plots are left empty as Muslims prefer to repatriate their deceased to their country of origin.
“People who die today still have very strong ties to their native countries,” Muhammad Hannel, spokesperson of the Association of Islamic Organizations in Zurich, told Swiss Info on Tuesday, July 24.
“This will change with the next generation or in about 25 years.”
Since 2000, sections dedicated for Muslims to bury their dead have been created in cemeteries in about 15 cities, mostly in German-speaking parts of Switzerland.
However, these cemeteries are almost empty as estimates show that more than 90 percent of deceased Muslims are repatriated to their country of origin.
This has triggered a heated debate about whether the urgent need of these Muslim cemeteries.
The uproar grew when the Lucerne youth chapter of the rightwing Swiss People’s Party called for the Muslim section of one municipal cemetery to be shut as only ten burials had taken place since it was set aside in 2008.
The same party opposed a new law allowing local cemeteries to reserve plots for Muslims in the canton of St Gallen.
The controversy spread to Koniz, in canton Bern, where the local executive branch rejected the establishment of a special burial section for Muslims.
Yet, the legislative branch accepted it.
“With the exception of Zurich and Winterthur, communes in the canton of Zurich do not make life easy for us,” Issa Gerber, member of the Association of Islamic Organizations in Zurich’s cemetery commission, said.
Switzerland is home to an estimated 400,000 Muslims, out of a population of more than 7 million, most of whom are immigrants from Albania and elsewhere in the Balkans.
In 2009, the Swiss People’s Party led a 57 percent of the voters’ approval on a proposal to ban the construction of mosque minarets in Switzerland.
The huge propaganda surrounding the voting was regarded as a main cause of tarnishing the image of Muslims in the European country.
Experts, Muslim residents and cemetery directors called critics of Muslims-dedicated cemeteries as “short-sighted”.
“There is no question that the number of Muslim burials in Switzerland will rise as the younger generation, who were born here and who have their roots here, grow old,” Andrea Tunger-Zanetti, specialist in Islam and coordinator of Lucerne University’s Center for the Study of Religions, told Swiss Info.
Other experts said Muslim plots in cemeteries would be needed later, referring to growing numbers of Muslims in Switzerland.
Based on the 2000 federal census, there were 310,807 Muslims living in Switzerland at the turn of the century, or 4.27 percent of the population, versus just 0.26 percent of the population in 1970.
The canton of Zurich, which counted some 102,000 Muslims in 2007, or eight percent of the population, has also seen heated debate over Islamic cemeteries.
The city of Zurich dedicated a section of one of its cemeteries in Witikon to Muslim burials in 2004. A second one will be opened in Winterthur this autumn.
“After struggling for decades, we have accomplished something very important,” said Gerber.
“Since 2004, 131 people have been buried in the Witikon cemetery in accordance with Muslim rites and there are only 320 Muslim burial plots available.”
Under Swiss laws, the right to a decent burial is guaranteed under article seven of the federal constitution, which protects human dignity.
Tunger-Zanetti opines that the specification for special sections for Muslims in public cemeteries would also help increase Muslim integration into Swiss society.“In my opinion, providing adequate infrastructure is also part of integration policy.”
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