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A plan by the Beppu Muslim Church to open the first cemetery in the Kyushu region used exclusively for Islamic burials has encountered stiff opposition from local residents.

Islamic religious laws strictly forbid cremation and require deceased Muslims to be buried with traditional Islamic rites.

In Japan, where the vast majority of people are cremated, only a limited number of cemeteries offer proper burial grounds for the growing Muslim population. They exist in Hokkaido and the Kanto region, but there are none in Kyushu.

The Graveyards and Burials Act does not ban burials, and there are some places where Muslim associations have purchased and managed sections at select cemeteries for Islamic burials.

Catholic Beppu Church in Oita Prefecture was the only one that had accepted Muslim burials in Kyushu, but it is running out of space, with about 20 plots mostly filled over the past decade.

There are growing calls among the Muslim population to secure burial sites in Japan as more and more Muslims have come to call Japan home. A 56-year-old man in Fukuoka lost his Muslim son 10 years ago and drove about 15 hours to Yamanashi Prefecture to bury him at a cemetery. But he has long been unable to visit the grave due to the heavy financial burden of traveling to the site.

“It is the wishes of all Muslims in Kyushu to have a grave nearby,” he says.

Projecting that Kyushu will run out of space for burials in the future, Beppu Muslim Church began looking for vacant land nearby more than 10 years ago.

Church staff went to various candidate sites in Oita Prefecture but couldn’t find appropriate land for a long time. Then, three years ago, it finally found and bought a plot of about 8,000 square meters in a mountainous area in the town of Hiji, neighboring the city of Beppu.

The plan involves the creation of about 100 burial plots. Necessary documents and the application were submitted to the town for approval in March 2019. In accordance with the town’s ordinance, five hearings were held for local residents about the planned cemetery.

But in August of this year, around 100 local residents in two local districts submitted to the mayor and town assembly a petition opposing the plan. They cited worries over wastewater entering a small reservoir about 1.2 kilometers away, which is located at a lower altitude than the planned site.

“We don’t know what impact it would have on our lives,” said a 61-year-old livestock farmer who relies on the reservoir as a source of drinking water for his cattle. “I’m also worried about the price of cattle declining due to reputational damage.”

The town says the planned land meets the criteria for a general cemetery, adding that it is currently reviewing the application documents.

Hiji Mayor Hirofumi Honda, who has the final say on the matter, indicated that the review might take a long time. “This matter should be judged based on the ordinance and other things,” he says.

Hirofumi Tanada, professor emeritus at Waseda University and an expert on Muslims living in Japan, says that at the end of last year an estimated 230,000 Muslims lived in Japan, of whom about 15,000 resided in Kyushu and Okinawa Prefecture.

Muhammad Tahir Abbas Khan, 53, who serves as the head of Beppu Muslim Church and is a professor at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University in Beppu, says more and more Muslims who come to Japan as foreign students become permanent residents after graduation.

“It is a matter of urgency to build a cemetery that people of different cultural backgrounds can use at ease,” he says.

“Residents tend to feel anxiety about an unknown religion, as they don’t know how to deal with it,” says Akiko Komura, anthropologist of religion and lecturer at Rikkyo University. “Because it involves the special use of land for a cemetery, both sides need to talk things over until they come to an agreement by, for instance, having Japanese Muslims join the discussions.”

This section features topics and issues from the Kyushu region covered by the Nishinippon Shimbun, the largest daily newspaper in Kyushu. The original article was published Nov. 3.

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