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Muslims face lack of burial sites


    The Catholic Beppu Church cemetery accepts Muslim burials, but space is running out.

OITA, Japan >> Muslim doctrine calls for burial of the dead, but there aren’t enough cemeteries designated for burial in Japan.

And it’s difficult to get consent for burial in this country where cremation is common, according to the Japan Muslim Association and other sources. In Kyushu, there’s just one cemetery where Muslims can be buried, and it’s located in Beppu. (In Fukuoka city, burials are not prohibited, but they require the consent of local residents.)

The Muslim population in Japan is expected to increase, but those who wish to have “a place to mourn” are already struggling to secure cemeteries.

“If this continues, it won’t be possible in a few years to take in any more Muslims,” said Puppo Orlando, 78, a priest at the Catholic Beppu Church. Orlando spoke in front of stone tablets with names engraved in Arabic and English, among other languages, at a Catholic cemetery in the mountains of Beppu. He began offering vacant cemetery spaces to Muslims about eight years ago.

While burial itself is not regulated under Japanese law, requirements for opening a cemetery are regulated by local governments, and it’s not easy to create new cemeteries for burials.

Muslims cemeteries are located in Hokkaido, Yamanashi and Shizuoka, among other prefectures.

Orlando was moved to share the church’s cemetery when Zafar Saeed, a 37-year-old Pakistani, appealed to him.

“There’s no cemetery where my newborn eldest son can be buried. I can’t collect his body from the hospital,” Saeed said.

Orlando decided to accept the body.

“We’re the same human beings, even if our religion is different. Mourning the dead is sacred,” he said.

Orlando has taken in about 10 bodies so far but said he can only accept a few more.

The Japan Muslim Association estimates about 170,000 Muslims live in Japan. According to the Beppu Muslim Association, about 500 Muslims live in Oita Prefecture.

Fukuoka Masjid, the first full-scale mosque in the Kyushu-Yamaguchi area, was completed in Fukuoka city in 2009. An estimated 1,000 Muslims live in Fukuoka Prefecture. The mosque does not own a dedicated cemetery.

“There are an increasing number of Muslim people who settle in Japan through marriage or employment,” said Kahn Tahir, a representative of the Beppu association, explaining that demand for burial spaces will go up.

The mosque has relied mainly on Orlando’s cemetery to provide resting places for its deceased members. With the assistance of the Beppu association, it hopes to locate land for a dedicated graveyard in Fukuoka Prefecture or another municipality in the Kyushu region.

Tahir sought out Buddhist monk Daido Jikaku, who runs a study group on Islamic culture, for help. The two have approached operators of religious and cemetery facilities in the prefecture.

Assistance for Muslims from Buddhists has precedence. Muslims in the Joso area, for instance, have established a relationship with a Buddhist temple in the area, and the Japan Islamic Trust rented 500 plots in the temple’s cemetery.

When plans for a Muslim cemetery in another prefecture faltered after opposition from residents, the temple’s chief priest extended a helping hand, asking residents to reconsider. His bond with them proved pivotal — the cemetery was built.

But in Beppu, at least for now, when a Muslim person dies the city government can only appeal to administrators of land where burials are allowed. But a city employee said, “There’s no precedent and they’re often reluctant.”

For Muslims, the ramification of the lack of a burial spot is serious. If burial isn’t possible in Japan, people sometimes take the deceased back home at great expense.

It’s a challenging situation, but Tahir won’t give up.

“Any place will do,” Tahir said. “I want to (ensure) an environment (for mourning) when someone passes away in Japan.”

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