Moving central city cemeteries to the outskirts of Egypt’s crowded capital city irks religious scholars.

A request by the Cairo Municipality to relocate ancient cemeteries to the outskirts of the crowded megalopolis and create room for parks and other open spaces has been rejected by religious authorities, who argue that moving graves is religiously impermissible.

A congested metropolis of some 17 million residents, Cairo is the most populous city in Africa and ranks 16th in the world. Parks and open spaces are rare in the city, which is one of the most polluted in the world. But Dar Al-Ifta, an Islamic research institute affiliated with the Ministry of Justice and entrusted with producing Islamic legal opinions (fatwas), said the creation of green spaces didn’t justify harming graveyards, which represent Egypt’s cultural heritage.

“Muslims have safeguarded the graves and remains of the pharaohs and never attempted to obliterate or remove them even though they were not Muslim,” a statement by Dar Al-Ifta read. “All the more so we should safeguard the graves of our nation’s glorious figures.”

The legal opinion allows for the removal of graves on condition that relatives of the deceased agree and that the buried body has completely decomposed. However, the graves of Islamic scholars and historic figures, the opinion continues, can never be touched.

Cairo’s first large park, the Al-Azhar Park, was inaugurated in 2004 in the city’s historic center. Built on a 74-acre former refuse dump in an impoverished residential neighborhood, the Al-Azhar Park is now visited by two million people a year. Sam Pickens, deputy director of communications at the Geneva-based Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), which built the park, said Cairo desperately needed more facilities like Al-Azhar.

“Cairo has one of the smallest green spaces of any major city in the world,” Pickens told The Media Line. “Studies show that between a footprint and one square meter of green space exists there per resident.”

Pickens added that the park, Cairo’s equivalent of Central Park in New York, has dramatically improved the quality of life of neighborhood residents. Two restaurants and an entrance fee generate revenue and employment.

“Our gift to the city has inspired the municipality of Cairo to create more green space,” Pickens said. “Anyone who visited central park in New York knows its value to residents as a place of recreation, walking and picnicking.”

Gamal Abd Al-Gawad, director of the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, said many cemeteries had previously been vacated in the city, but Cairenes didn’t necessarily approve of the practice.

“It’s more a cultural issue than a religious one,” Abd Al-Gawad told The Media Line. “The main opponents are grave owners and relatives, but regular citizens identify with them.”

Agreeing that Cairo needed more green space, Abd Al-Gawad suggested a moratorium on burials within the city for a number of years, which would allow for the subsequent relocation of graves in the future.

Muhammad Ibrahim, an urban planner at Ein-Shams University in Cairo, said that turning cemeteries into parks in Cairo was a bad idea, since real estate moguls would take over the green areas and use them for large-scale building projects.

“This will only increase the terrible infrastructure burden Cairo is already suffering from,” Ibrahim told The Media Line. “The solution is to include green areas in new building projects outside Cairo and encourage people to move there.”

An Islamic legal opinion had allowed for the removal of ancient Muslim graves in the Mammila neighborhood of Jerusalem to make way for the new Museum of Tolerance. The Israeli Supreme Court allowed the building project to proceed after the cemetery on which the museum was to be built was declared mundaras, or abandoned, by local Islamic authorities in the 1960s.