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Muslim burial site in upstate New York runs into problems

By Kristen Hamill, CNN
  • New York town tries to shut down a local Muslim community center's burial site
  • Members of the Sufi Muslim community center ask: Why now?
  • Problems started after NYC Islamic Center controversy began, says spokesperson

(CNN) -- Leaders of a town in upstate New York are trying to shut down a local Muslim community center's burial site, prompting members of the center to wonder: Why now?

Hans Hass, spokesperson for the Sufi Muslim Osmanli Naksibendi Hakkani Dergahi, or community center, in Sidney, New York, told CNN that problems surrounding the cemetery and questions about its legality started around the time the lower Manhattan Mosque and Islamic Center controversy began making national news.

But Sidney town supervisor Bob McCarthy said the legality of the cemetery came up "long before that," referring to the lower Manhattan Islamic center controversy, though he did not say specifically when the issue came up. "What they do in New York City has nothing to do with us," he said. When asked if the lawsuit had anything to do with the burial site originating from a Muslim community center, McCarthy said, "No."

According to board meeting minutes provided to CNN by Hass, McCarthy and the town board voted in August to start "seeking an injunction prohibiting the burying of bodies on private property in violation of New York state town law." In addition to preventing future burials, town officials are seeking to disinter the two members of the Sufi Muslim community currently buried on the land.

McCarthy said he is "not an attorney" and was vague about the injunction proceedings, except to say that, currently, "there is no injunction." He referred CNN to the town's lawyer, Joseph Ermeti, who is handling the legal proceeding. Ermeti has not returned phone calls or e-mails to CNN.

Lisa French, town clerk for Sidney, told CNN that according to Sidney's zoning laws, cemeteries are permitted on property that contains a "single contiguous area of at least 15 acres." Hass said his community's burial site has over 60 contiguous acres.

And according to the New York state Department of Cemeteries, there are no state regulations concerning burial on private property -- each community is advised to consult its local government on the matter.

But French points to another law in the state's Department of Cemeteries, which does indicate that it is unlawful to mortgage land "used and occupied for cemetery purposes."

The community center's lawyers are looking into the mortgaged land issue and are still uncertain whether the law is applicable to their situation, Hass said. "We didn't have a cemetery that we mortgaged, we have a property that we had a mortgage on from the beginning and we put a cemetery on it," he said. The center is confident the matter will be resolved -- either by dividing the property or paying off the mortgage, Hass said.

The community's burial site was approved in 2005 by the town's code enforcement official Dale R. Downin, Hass said. Hass provided CNN with a copy of the approval letter, dated December 6, 2005, which simply states that Downin has "inspected" the proposed property and that "a cemetery at this location would be allowed use according to the Town of Sidney Zoning Ordinance." Phone calls to Downin to confirm its authenticity have not yet been returned.

But according to McCarthy, who said he has not seen Downin's letter to the community center, "The crux of the argument is that you can't just bury somebody in your lawn," McCarthy tells CNN. "That's what they're doing -- they buried [bodies] in their field."

Hass does not see it that way. "It's an unfortunate situation, and I don't think it really reflects the view of most Americans," he told CNN."This is a small-town issue and it's a small-town mentality ... and they're pressing ahead with it because their intentions, I think, are pretty transparent."

Hass also said the cemetery is not exclusively for Muslims. "We welcome anyone who would like to be buried here, including local people who otherwise are unable to afford burial," he said.