GARDEN CITY — Muslim leaders in southwest Kansas are considering opening a private cemetery after city officials turned down their request to create a separate burial area at a municipal cemetery.
Currently, the bodies of many Muslims who die in the region must be taken to Wichita to be buried in a cemetery that better serves the religion, said Abdulkadir Mohamed, vice president of Somalis of Southwest Kansas. For example, Muslim bodies must be buried in a white shroud and face the Islamic holy city of Mecca.
A growing number of Muslims, many from Somalia and Myanmar, have settled in southwest Kansas, mostly to work in four meatpacking plants within a 70-mile radius of Dodge City and Liberal. An estimated 500 Muslims live in Garden City.
Mohamed said finding a separate cemetery is "very important to us."
"As long as we work here and we live here, we need a place to bury our people," Mohamed said. "Most will stay here. It's not easy to move."
Mohamed and Saw Min, a Garden City resident and leader in the Muslim Myanmar community, asked Garden City officials in early June to create a separate burial ground at Valley View Cemetery for Muslim burials.
The leaders, who belong to the Coalition of Ethnic Minority Leaders, said Muslim religious law dictates that the grounds be separated by a fence or other structure.
City Commissioner Nancy Harness and cemetery sexton Jim Hahn told the Muslim leaders last week that the commission would not agree to segregate the cemetery.
Hahn said the city has moved away from former practices and tries not to discriminate along racial, ethnic or religious lines in two municipal cemeteries.
"We can only offer what we offer everyone," Hahn said. "If (Muslims) were to purchase a section of plots specifically for themselves, chances are all the churches will want to do that, too, and we'd have a whole lot of little cemeteries in our cemetery. And it would go against everything we've been trying to do in the last 30 years."
Hahn said establishing a private cemetery is difficult because it involves buying and registering property that must be properly zoned. The cemetery officials would also have to follow state rules and regulations, which include maintaining the cemetery for at least 100 years.
Hahn said he would advise Muslim leaders to continue transporting their deceased loved ones to Wichita until a long-term solution can be found.
Shaykh Mohamed El-Ghobashy, an imam of the Islamic Society of Tulsa, said the body of a deceased Muslim must be buried in a Muslim cemetery if one is available, shrouded in white cloth and laid on its right side. The body must face Mecca, the Saudi Arabian city that is the holiest site in Islam.
El-Ghobashy said Tulsa Muslims have had their own cemetery for the past dozen years. Before it was established, bodies were buried in other local cemeteries.
"If there's no other place (to bury a body) then we can do that, but as long as a Muslim cemetery is available, we have to use it," he said.