The small group of Bosnian Muslims practice their faith in Minneapolis, but they wanted a cemetery they could call their own. They signed a purchase agreement on an affordable parcel in rural Chisago County, and the planning commission approved the land use.

But the County Board voted 3-2 to deny the permit. Some assert the cemetery would pollute groundwater and increase congestion on a rural highway. Others say the board was responding to an anti-Muslim backlash, evident in derogatory social media comments and the lingering belief that the Bosniaks — as Bosnian Muslims are called — were being held to a different standard than Christians buried in the county.

The Bosniaks continue to look for a place to bury their dead, and now hope to receive invitations from any suburban county with available land. Enes Gluhic, a war refugee who represented the Bosniak proposal at the Chisago County hearings, promised they would be neighborly.

“People of all religions have helped my family,” Gluhic said. “I have never felt the hatred and animosity that I do now and I’ve been here for 23 years. After being welcomed for so many years, it’s tough to see that now.”

The dispute resembles arguments over proposed Muslim cemeteries in other parts of the country, as well as a recent example in Dakota County where a judge ruled that Castle Rock Township’s attempt to block a Muslim cemetery was “arbitrary and capricious” and allowed it.

Ben Montzka, one of the two Chisago County commissioners who voted Dec. 21 to grant the Bosniaks’ request, said he found no reason to deny it. He said the perception of religious intolerance doesn’t accurately represent his progressive, upbeat county.

“As an American, I think we should all strive to treat each other with the same respect that we expect from them,” Montzka said. “I would encourage all of us to use language that doesn’t shut down the debate.”

Price was the issue

Chisago County is a long way from the Bosniaks’ mosque on Broadway Avenue in Minneapolis, but they give a practical reason for looking there for land: a willing seller and an affordable price.

They have been using Muslim sections of cemeteries in Roseville and Burnsville, but fewer plots remain. After the congregation of about 1,200 decided to get their own cemetery, they found what they were seeking in Chisago Lake Township, just north of the Washington County line: a 16-acre parcel with 2 acres for the burial ground (the rest would be farmed, as it is now). Gluhic told the planning commission that the Bosniaks expected four burials a year.

“The biggest issue was the price,” Gluhic said. “We’re a small community. It was hard enough to get together the $140,000 for the land.” Similar property in Minneapolis, he said, would cost six times that.

Several neighbors raised concerns that the Muslim “green burial” tradition of burying bodies without caskets would pollute their drinking water. Some people compared it to burying livestock.

Others responded that burying a human body in a shroud is better for the earth than chemical-embalmed bodies in caskets full of hazardous metals.

Some people said the Muslim congregation hadn’t paid taxes in the county and had no voting rights there. Others objected to having to “see death” from a living room window. A resident complained that wailing and chanting would dampen pool parties.

Another resident left a phone message at county offices: “We will have a new administration in the federal government soon that maybe will look out more for regular people who have been here.”

Several anti-Muslim comments appeared on a Facebook page, which soon went private. Screen grabs of comments show suspicion that the Bosniaks intended to build a mosque at the cemetery site, which Gluhic denied.

“This must be stopped, we do not need Muslims or Islamic Terrorists in Chisago County,” said one post.

Nothing to fear

Resident Jeff Radich wrote Montzka and the other commissioner who voted in favor of the cemetery, Mike Robinson, that the issue wasn’t the Bosniaks’ religion but harm to property values. The three commissioners who voted against issuing a permit to the Bosniaks cited land-use concerns.

“Every single person who stepped to a microphone was disciplined, respectful and provided real and tangible concerns that never once would be positioned as any sign of disrespect to another religious community,” Radich wrote.

Gluhic’s family of four came to the United States with three bags. When he arrived in this country, he said, he spent a month and a half on welfare and then paid the government back when he got a job. He has few surviving friends from Bosnia because, he said, most were killed in bitter fighting.

“That’s the story for most of my community,” he said.

Gluhic said Chisago County residents have nothing to fear from their fellow Americans.

“Being in the United States and knowing everything this country has done for my family, I want to make sure this type of behavior isn’t rewarded by walking away,” he said. “People have fought for religious freedom, people have fought for equality. If I don’t do that same thing for my family, my community, where is it going to end?”