A project to create a Muslim cemetery in a town near Quebec City, one that has been the topic of controversy since it was proposed, will be put to a vote.

The municipality of Saint-Apollinaire, southwest of Quebec City, opened a registry to collect signatures to force a referendum on the topic on Wednesday.

A minimum 17 people had to sign. By the end of the day, 22 had put their names down.

At issue is a zoning change that would allow the cemetery to be built.

Only about 62 people, those who live or work a certain distance from the proposed site, are allowed to vote in the referendum.

The town's population is about 6,000.

The vote will be held in July. If it passes, the cemetery would be created in a wooded area on the outskirts of town. 

A matter of dignity

Karim Elabed is an imam at the mosque in Lévis, about 27 kilometres northeast of Saint-Apollinaire.

Saint-Apollinaire

A resident of Saint-Apollinaire, southwest of Quebec City, walks in to the town hall building Wednesday, May 17. A total of 22 people signed a register to force a referendum on whether the town will get a Muslim cemetery. (Radio-Canada)

It's been one year since that mosque opened its doors, and tonight its members will host a discussion that's intended to reach out to their neighbours and show they aren't trying to "make problems or division in this country, but to build, together, prosperity, peace and solidarity."

Elabed said January's shooting and the saga in Saint-Apollinaire has affirmed to them that the discussion is needed.

"It's really very sad to see that there is really a lot of road to make with the exchange and with tolerance in this country," he said.

Ahead of the referendum, he would like to see local Muslims get involved in the discussion around the project. 

"It's a matter of dignity, of rights, [of being] a part of Canada. Because Muslims, along with Christians or Jews, or [people of] any origin, or [who are] not religious, are part of this country and they have rights," he said.

"We need to go forward to explain to people that there is no threat to put a [Muslim] cemetery in this country."

Project has been in the works for months

Quebec City's Muslim community has been in discussions with the Harmonia funeral home in Saint-Apollinaire to buy land to establish their own cemetery since September 2016.

Referendum

The municipality of Saint-Apollinaire, southwest of Quebec City, opened a registry to collect signatures to force the referendum. (Radio-Canada)

The issue took on new urgency when the families of the six men gunned down in January's deadly shooting at a Quebec City mosque had nowhere nearby to bury their dead according to the rituals of the Islamic faith. 

Right now, there are no Muslim cemeteries in the province outside the greater Montreal area.

And while some residents, including the mayor, are in favour of the project, others are not.

Earlier this month, a group of about 20 people showed up at a council meeting to try and quash the plan, to no avail.

Local concerns based partly on misinformation

Diane Vallières was one of the 22 people who signed the referendum register. She said she takes issue with how the municipality has proceeded with the project.

Saint-Apollinaire cemetery

The land where the cemetery would be created is behind the Harmonia funeral home in Saint-Apollinaire.

"Everyone in Saint-Apollinaire should have the right to express themselves on this," she told Radio-Canada. 

"We don't want [the cemetery], but I think the project is too far along."

Vallières also cited environmental concerns for her opposition to the cemetery. 

"Muslims only bury their dead six inches from the surface. From an ecological perspective, that's not good," she said. 

This last claim, however, was refuted Quebec's Islamic Cultural Centre, which said Muslim tradition is to bury their dead in a coffin in a grave that's 1.5-metres deep.

With files from Quebec AM and Radio-Canada's Alain Rochefort