French Muslims Face a Cruel Coronavirus Shortage: Burial Grounds

PARIS — The middle-aged males, some sporting masks and gloves, leaned over a freshly excavated grave and gingerly slid a coffin into it. Arching their backs and bending their knees, they have been burying a 60-year-old French-Moroccan lady within the Muslim part of a cemetery in a city north of Paris.

But it was greater than 1,800 miles from the place the lady had wished to be laid to relaxation: Ifrane Atlas-Saghir, her residence village in Morocco.

“We buried her there, but we don’t know if we’ll ever repatriate her or not,” stated the lady’s son Hakim, who insisted on being recognized solely by his first title out of respect for his household’s privateness.

The pandemic that has upended a lot of the world has halted the custom of many French Muslim immigrant households of repatriating our bodies to their nation of origin. And as most countries have closed their borders, it has additionally highlighted the difficult job of discovering correct Muslim burial plots which can be oriented towards Mecca.

Such plots are considerably missing in French cemeteries, a concern that many households from Northwest and sub-Saharan Africa have raised for many years. But the pandemic has helped reveal the complete extent of the scarcity whereas underscoring the broader wrestle over the mixing of Muslims in France.

“Covid-19 has, unfortunately, hit the Muslim community with full force,” stated Chems-Eddine Hafiz, the rector of the Grand Mosque of Paris. “This situation has been going on for years, and we are now paying a high price for it.”

Every 12 months, hundreds of our bodies are despatched again to the Maghreb — Northwest Africa — and sub-Saharan Africa, an operation involving specialised funeral houses, constitution flights and consular companies. But the coronavirus put a cease to this well-functioning system.

Morocco and Tunisia have suspended all repatriations, whereas Algeria and Mali permit solely individuals who haven’t died of the illness to return. The repatriation bans have pushed extra Muslim households to show to French cemeteries to bury their kin.

In 2016, about six million Muslims have been dwelling in France, near 9 % of the overall inhabitants and the best focus in Europe, in keeping with a Pew Research Center study. But barely 2 % of the overall variety of graveyards in France have Muslim sections, Mr. Hafiz stated.

French Muslim communities have been calling for more room in cemeteries for years. But due to France’s strict secular legal guidelines, city councils — which handle the nation’s cemeteries — usually are not required to create or lengthen spiritual plots.

“A serious crisis is underway,” stated Djamel Djemai, the 42-year-old proprietor of Al Janaza Muslim funeral residence within the Seine-Saint-Denis district. The space is residence to many immigrant households and the mortality rate there has soared in recent weeks. Mr. Djemai stated that exercise at his enterprise had greater than doubled for the reason that starting of the disaster due to “bodies who in normal circumstances should have been repatriated.”

For households whose mother and father emigrated from former French colonies in Africa to France within the second half of the 20th century, repatriating the our bodies of family members is a custom undergirded by a need to maintain sturdy ties with the house nation.

“There is a symbolic and restorative dimension,” stated Valérie Cuzol, a researcher on the Max-Weber Center in Lyon, who estimates that about 80 % of Muslims who die in France are repatriated to their nations of origin. Ms. Cuzol added that some immigrant households in France have been “forced” to repatriate our bodies for lack of a Muslim part in a cemetery.

Mamadou Diagouraga, 32, misplaced his father in late March. Mr. Diagouraga’s father, who emigrated from Mali to France within the 1970s, died at 70 in a hospital after a number of strokes. Fear of an infection made it not possible to repatriate and bury him close to the our bodies of his brothers and sisters in his residence village.

“Not having respected his last wishes, it’s true, it is heartbreaking,” Mr. Diagouraga stated.

Hakim’s mom, Yamina, who died of most cancers, was to be buried in Ifrane Atlas-Saghir, the village in southern Morocco that she left at 20 to hitch her Moroccan husband who was already working as a metallurgist in France.

Faced with the ban, her household determined to bury her within the Muslim part of the cemetery within the city of Garges-lès-Gonesse. Near her grave, a dozen picket grave markers pegged in contemporary piles of earth confirmed the latest upsurge of exercise within the part.

But Hakim was grateful.

“Few people have had the same luck,” he stated, referring to households who have been nonetheless on the lookout for a cemetery with out there Muslim graves.

The French Council of the Muslim Faith referred to as in April for mayors and authorities officers to urgently create new burial plots.

“Let’s not add to the grief of the families the pain of not being able to honor their dead,” the group’s assertion stated.

“Several cities, primarily within the Paris suburbs, have agreed to develop their cemeteries however many areas are nonetheless dealing with a scarcity of Muslim burial plots.

There are 100 graves nonetheless out there for about 100,000 Muslim inhabitants within the district surrounding Lyon, the place the council of imams issued a fatwa, or spiritual edict, quickly permitting burials exterior Muslim sections, stated Kamel Kabtane, the rector of the Grand Mosque of Lyon. Families can later exhume the our bodies and rebury them — and even repatriate them — in accordance with spiritual traditions.

“We wanted Covid-19 to boost consciousness,” stated Samad Akrach, 32, the pinnacle of Tahara, a company that helps Muslim households with funeral rites. Mr. Akrach lately filed an attraction asking for the growth of the Muslim part of the Montreuil cemetery, east of Paris.

Mr. Akrach, whose household is from Morocco, stated that he was preventing not just for the older era who migrated to France, but additionally for members of his personal era who have been born in France and don’t intend to be buried elsewhere.

“Morocco is the country of my parents and grandparents, not mine,” Mr. Akrach stated.

Mr. Hafiz, the rector of the Grand Mosque of Paris, stated that for the youthful generations, “the country of origin” custom held a lot much less significance.

“The younger generations want to be totally French,” he stated, “and clearly, willingness to be buried in France is a type of integration.”

Mauricio Lima contributed reporting from Garges-lès-Gonesse, France.

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