MUSLIMS could be buried alongside Christians in a village graveyard under plans being debated.

Wear Valley District Council is considering setting aside 50 plots in its graveyard at Witton-le-Wear, County Durham, for Muslims.

They council estimates that 200 Muslims live in the district, and expects numbers to rise over coming decades.

The practice of people from different faiths being buried in the same place is common in large towns, but rare in rural areas.

The council came up with the idea after officers were contacted by people in Newfield, near Willington, wanting to buy burial plots.

The Muslim faith requires that graves should face north-south so the deceased's face can be turned east towards Mecca.

Witton-le-Wear graveyard was chosen because the land was most suitable, and had space available in a separate unconsecrated section.

Only 12 burials have taken place there in the past ten years, meaning it is unlikely to be filled for 400 years. The parish council has raised no objections.

The Reverend Nick Denham, priest-in-charge at the village church, welcomed the move.

He said: "I have not had any experience of this, but it seems entirely appropriate.

"It is right that people are able to bury members of their family who have died in a way that is appropriate for their faith."

A spokesman for the Muslim Council of Britain said Muslims and Christians followed similar burial traditions.

He said: "It is quite a common practice throughout the UK for local authority-owned cemeteries to be sectioned off for different religious groups. There is a lot of education work to be done on all sides, but let me assure the Christian community in this part of the world that Muslims are very respectful of their resting places, whether they are Muslim, Christian or Jewish.

"Muslims and Christians share many common beliefs regarding death and the afterlife, including the idea of judgement and accountability to God.

"Many Muslims like to visit their loved one's grave every week, and part of the tradition is that they should be buried as soon as possible and in the nearest possible cemetery."

A survey of other councils revealed that Stockton has two cemeteries providing an area for Muslim burials, although one is full, and Sunderland makes provision in one cemetery.

A decision on whether to approve the plan will be taken by the council on January 9.