BERLIN // In a sombre sign that Muslims are becoming more integrated in German society, the 300,000-strong Islamic community in Berlin has complained that it is running out of graveyard space, and is urging authorities to help solve the problem.
The shortage of sites reflects a desire by increasing numbers of Muslims to be buried in Germany rather than be taken to their countries of origin after their death. Community leaders have stepped up their campaign this month for more burial space.
"They live here in the second and third generation and they want to be buried where they lived and worked," said Ender Cetin, the chairman of the Muslim association at the Sehitlik mosque in Berlin. "This is a problem that urgently needs to be solved."
Berlin has only two operational cemeteries dedicated to Muslims, and their 2,000 gravesites will be full by early next year. The graveyards are attached to public Christian cemeteries. The Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs (DITIB) has applied for permission to expand one of the cemeteries bordering the former airport of Tempelhof, but the city government has other plans for the area.
The other graveyard is located in the western suburb of Gatow and could be enlarged. But it is far away from the central Berlin districts where the mainly ethnic Turkish Muslims live, and the community would prefer a closer site.
The requirements of the Quran make the search for suitable sites more difficult. All graves must be positioned with the head facing towards Mecca, and rooms must be made available to allow the ritual washing of the dead. Cremation is not permitted.
Berlin does not require the bodies be placed in caskets and permits burials of people wrapped just in cloth, in accordance with Islamic tradition. But the German practice of limiting the duration of burial sites clashes with the Muslim tradition that the dead must be allowed eternal peace. In Berlin, the leases on graves span 20 years, after which they have to be renewed. Otherwise the site is cleared for reuse.
A number of German cities have Muslim sections in their municipal cemeteries. But the lease arrangement is still deterring many Muslims from being buried in Germany. At present, about 80 to 90 per cent of immigrants of the Islamic faith are still being interred outside the country.
Most of the Muslims dying are elderly Turks who came to Germany as "guest workers" half a century ago and stayed, and who want to be buried in the land of their birth. Their descendants, however, who have never lived in Turkey, are opting for burials in Germany.
"The younger generation thinks differently," said Eyup Ilgün, a Turkish undertaker based in the city of Stuttgart. However, cost is another factor preventing many Muslims from wanting to be buried in Germany. "A transfer to Turkey costs €2,000 (Dh9,250), whereas a dignified burial in Germany costs €5,000 to €6,000," said Mr Ilgün.
Some 200,000 ethnic Turkish families in Germany pay into a burial fund run by DITIB, the Muslim association, which organises the transport to and interment in Turkey. "If we get a deceased person reported to us in the morning, we quickly take care of the ritual washing and the prayer for the dead so that the person can be on the plane in the afternoon," said Mr Ilgün.
Many European countries face similar pressures to find burial space for Muslim immigrants. In February, France inaugurated its first municipal Muslim cemetery in the city of Strasbourg in a move Islamic leaders described as a step towards recognising one of the country's largest minority groups. France has western Europe's biggest Muslim minority, estimated at between five and six million people.
However, Muslims have to be buried in caskets there, and unlimited leases will not be available.
Berlin has had a dedicated Muslim cemetery since 1866 serving the city's Turkish community. It is a historic site, however, and has been closed to new interments for 30 years.
The German capital has voted to tackle the space shortage but has so far baulked at making funding available for a new cemetery. And Muslim representatives said they cannot afford to run a cemetery based just on donations.
Petra Roland, the Berlin city development spokeswoman, said the government was checking whether existing municipal sites had space for Islamic sections. "We're intensively working on a solution."