SIDNEY CENTER, N.Y. – Officials in a rural upstate New York town are trying to force a group of Muslims to dig up two bodies in their cemetery, saying the burials were illegal.
But the Sufi group, which has documents that appear to support the cemetery's legality, says the town board's actions were motivated by a wave of anti-Islamic sentiment fueled by the uproar over a planned mosque near ground zero.
Hans Hass of the Osmanli Naksibendi Hakkani community, 130 miles northwest of New York City, said Tuesday that the Sufi community learned only recently about the Sidney Town Board's vote in August to pursue legal action to shut down the community's cemetery.
"They knew we had the cemetery," Hass said. "I filed burial permits with the town. It wasn't an issue until the ground zero mosque came up."
Town Supervisor Bob McCarthy said the cemetery is illegal and bigotry had nothing to do with the board decision. He said no legal action has been taken yet and referred questions about the potential action to town attorney Joseph Ermeti, who didn't return a call seeking comment.
"These people just came up and buried bodies on the land," McCarthy said. "You have to have permits. They didn't have them. You can't just bury Grandma in the backyard under the picnic table."
But Hass said he has a 2005 document from the town zoning board saying the cemetery is legal and burial permits showing the burials were handled by licensed funeral directors.
New York law explicitly says the state does not regulate private or religious cemeteries. The Town of Sidney zoning ordinance states that cemeteries are permitted on private land with a single contiguous area of at least 15 acres.
"If they're within their rights they shouldn't worry about us doing anything," McCarthy said. "They're trying to push this through and I believe they're wrong."
The Sufi community was established in 2002 on a 50-acre sheep farm to be "a small intentional community devoted to contemplation and prayer, to lead the spiritual life of Islam, to lead a simple, quiet life close to the earth," Hass said in a statement. The community has about 30 members.
Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the leader behind the proposed Islamic community center and mosque near ground zero, is a Sufi but is not affiliated with the group in Sidney Center.
McCarthy said his concern is that the town might get stuck taking care of the cemetery some day if it's abandoned.
"The person that's most discriminated against is the real property taxpayer," McCarthy said. "The cost of taking care of this falls back on the taxpayer."
He said the town already has a number of old, abandoned burial sites it must maintain.
But Hass noted that the town board wasn't proposing to disinter bodies from any of those graveyards.
When asked about allegations of anti-Islamic sentiment, McCarthy said: "That's ludicrous. The only reason they received any attention is they illegally buried bodies. Other than that, I didn't even know they were here."