Religion

Section of Rock Hill city-owned cemetery for Muslim burials?

Sign for Forest Hills Cemetery on Celanese Road in Rock Hill where a section is set aside for those of the Jewish faith.
Sign for Forest Hills Cemetery on Celanese Road in Rock Hill where a section is set aside for those of the Jewish faith. adys@heraldonline.com

A potential solution has emerged in the rejected and controversial attempt by Rock Hill Muslims to bury their dead in the city – an Islamic section at one of the city-owned cemeteries.

Muslims, rebuffed by both the city’s zoning appeals board and neighbors when trying to purchase property in a neighborhood and use it for a cemetery, said Friday they had talks with city officials about a portion of one of the city’s three cemeteries being sectioned off for Islamic burials.

“It is a solution that could work,” said Nazir Cheema, a Muslim retired engineer who has lived in Rock Hill for three decades and has led the effort for a cemetery. “What we have always been looking for is a place to bury our dead, no different than anyone else.”

However, whether that will happen – or even could – remains unclear. City officials have not confirmed the possibility of a Muslim spot on city property. The city has so far agreed to no solution involving city property. In an email to The Herald, Rock Hill spokesperson Katie Quinn said, “Mr. Cheema has contacted the City about various possibilities for burial sites, but at this time we are unaware if we’ll be able to grant his request.”

Cheema, who met with the city attorney after the effort for a private cemetery was shot down, said that Muslims also are still considering other options including a private property cemetery inside the city limits.

The city cemetery idea seems to be a potential solution worthy of study, said Rock Hill native James “Jumah” Moore, executive director of the Islamic Center of South Carolina.

A compromise on city property could solve a potentially thorny legal problem for the city, as the city’s zoning board rejected a Muslim cemetery on Bird Street near Anderson Road last month. Federal laws generally prohibit zoning decisions based on religion. Despite city planning officials being in support of issuing a zoning variance for the Bird Street property – and a warning from a city lawyer during a public meeting that later included private attorney/client meetings in closed session – the zoning board denied the Bird Street request.

A section of city-owned Forest Hills Cemetery on Celanese Road in northwestern Rock Hill already includes a section for Jewish burials. The city’s website shows: “There is a section set aside at Forest Hills Cemetery for those of the Jewish faith.”

At the rear of Forest Hills, the Jewish section is partly separated from the rest of the cemetery by a low hedge and bears a stone marker that states the section is for those of the Jewish faith.

The city of Rock Hill also owns and operates Laurelwood Cemetery just west of downtown, and Barber Memorial Cemetery near Heckle Boulevard and West Main Street.

The Islamic Center of South Carolina opened a mosque just west of downtown on Main Street two years ago. There was almost no public opposition to the mosque.

But there was fast and loud opposition to a private Muslim cemetery. In July, dozens of neighbors from an area on Bird Street near Anderson Road on the city’s east side objected to the attempt to buy a vacant lot and turn it into a Muslim cemetery. Many neighbors signed a petition to keep the Muslim cemetery out. Some neighbors voiced concerns that property values would drop. Others claimed they would never be able to re-sell property near a cemetery. Only one person spoke out publicly against the cemetery over concerns about Islam.

Muslim tradition dictates burial sites do not have headstones or any markers, with burial by sundown the day after death. Muslims also typically do not have funeral processions.

Andrew Dys: 803-329-4065

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