Jews and Muslims challenge Geneva cemetery law with calls for own burial spaces

A cemetery law that has kept the peace between Protestants and Catholics for 130 years is being challenged by Muslims and Jews who want their own space for graves, apart from public burial grounds.

Geneva, shaped as a "Protestant Rome" by religious reformer Jean Calvin in the 16th century, has in recent decades sought to foster religious harmony.

The Swiss city has practiced a strict secularism that extends to the grave, requiring that all cemeteries be public and nondenominational, with equal plots aligned the same way.

But the city's Jewish and Muslim communities want separate cemeteries that would allow them to bury their dead according their religions' rites, and a proposed law is up for approval by the cantonal (state) parliament Thursday.

"We (Jews and Muslims) both need a place where we can bury our dead according to our rituals," said Hafid Ouardiri, spokesman of the Foundation for Islamic Culture in Geneva.

The Jewish community for decades managed to skirt the problem because it was able to create a cemetery on the French border, with parking and the entrance on the Swiss side and the graves across the border in France.

However, that cemetery is almost full, and the Jewish community wants new space, arguing that the existing law violates freedom of religion and the right to human dignity enshrined in Switzerland's Constitution.

The Muslim community says it, too, has outgrown the two small sections of cemeteries that the canton previously granted it and needs more room to permit practices such as directing graves toward Mecca.

Opponents of the proposal, mainly from the center-right Radicals, Christian Democrats and the Socialists, fear the new law would endanger secular principles and perhaps open up friction between the different religious communities.

"I don't see why we should again light up the war of religions," Guy Mettan, who heads the Christian Democrat group in the cantonal parliament, told The Associated Press.

He said his party opposed private cemeteries because everybody is equal in death.

Christian Brunier, Social Democrat deputy in the cantonal parliament, said the majority of the socialists were opposed to private cemeteries.

"This would open the door to community divisions" with the risk of a proliferation of sectarian cemeteries, he said in a telephone interview.

Ouardiri, of the Muslim group, said the issue had been taken hostage by politics. "Instead of having an honest debate, an open and constructive dialogue, we find ourselves in a polemical series."

But he said he was confident the law would pass.

"We trust in the open-mindedness of many politicians," he said.

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