Newton to lift moratorium on mosque

A temporary ban affecting a proposed mosque and cemetery in Newton County will likely be lifted following meetings between county officials and Muslim community leaders this week.

Newton County commissioners said Wednesday they plan to lift a moratorium on new places of worship enacted in response to the project.

“I thank the Newton County commissioners for doing the right thing,” said Edward Ahmed Mitchell, executive director of the Georgia branch of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. He was speaking at a news conference Wednesday afternoon.

The Doraville congregation behind the project, represented by Al Maad Al Islami Inc., purchased 135 acres off Ga. Highway 162 in June 2015. At that time, it received a county permit for a place of worship.

But over a year later, word of the mosque spread, sparking fierce public opposition and the moratorium.

CAIR had previously noted that the Department of Justice was considering their request to investigate the county for discriminatory practices over its handling of the project. The county held two public hearings on the mosque, despite the fact that the organization had not submitted any plans or applied for permits. The response was overwhelmingly negative, and no one from the mosque was invited to attend.

Mohammad Islam, the imam of the Doraville-based congregation behind the proposed mosque, said CAIR acted independently when it filed its complaint to the DOJ. He said he preferred a gentler, more direct approach.

“It’s very normal what we are hearing,” Islam said of the fears voiced by some Newton County residents. “It’s not their test; it’s our test. We should show we are compassionate, we are gracious and the tide will (turn).”

Islam and several other members of his congregation met with Newton County officials and several local mayors earlier this week to introduce themselves and answer questions. The imam said he was pleased with the outcome of those meetings, and plans to reach out to the broader Newton County community over the coming weeks.

Islam said he did not have a timeline for when he expected construction to begin on the mosque and cemetery, adding that his focus was on building better relations with the new neighbors.

Once Al Maad Al Islami submits plans to the county, they will be reviewed by various departments and a permit will be issued or denied without coming before the Board of Commissioners for a vote.

“We pledge to work collaboratively with the Applicant throughout the review process to ensure the project meets federal and state requirements and follows local ordinances and laws,” County Manager Lloyd Kerr said, according to a joint statement with the county and CAIR. “Once plans are approved, the County can issue permits and construction begins.”

According to the statement, commissioners expect to lift the moratorium at a Sept. 13 meeting.

A Newton County spokesperson did not respond to requests for comment from individual commissioners or the county chairman, but District 3 Commissioner Nancy Schulz was quoted in the statement praising Newton’s rich “diversity and hospitality.”

“We are happy to see residents of all faiths and backgrounds live and worship together in our community,” she said.