George Lanier (right), pastor of Grace United Methodist Church in Covington, fist-bumps with students at the Masjid At-Taqwa Mosque in Doraville as he is welcomed with flowers on Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2016. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM Bob Andres
Photo: Bob Andres
Photo: Bob Andres

Newton County mosque fight might draw federal scrutiny

The U.S. Department of Justice is reviewing a request to investigate Newton County for alleged discrimination in its handling of a planned mosque and Islamic cemetery, according to the Georgia chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations.

Last week, the Newton County Commission voted unanimously to place a five-week moratorium on new places of worship after news of the mosque was met with an overwhelmingly hostile reaction from residents.

The Muslim congregation behind the project, represented by Al Maad Al Islami Inc., purchased the property and received a permit for a place of worship over a year ago. It has not applied for any additional permits since.

“If a protestant church had received an approval letter to build a house of worship, we would not be in this situation,” CAIR GA Executive Director Edward Ahmed Mitchell said Tuesday. “The fact that (the Justice Department is) even looking at it should lead the Newton County Commission to come to its senses and avoid the possibility of a legal battle.”

Residents and clergy of Newton County met with members of the Masjid At-Taqwa Mosque in Doraville that wants to build a Muslim cemetery and mosque on land at County Line Road and Highway 162 in Newton County. BOB ANDRES /bandres@AJC.com

The county defended its actions in a letter dated August 19.

“The County asserts that it has acted entirely within its Constitutional and statutory authority …” the letter reads. “… The County cannot be held responsible for the comments and actions of individual members of the community.”

Meanwhile, the congregation opened the doors of its existing Doraville mosque Tuesday to a handful of clergy and residents from Newton County in an effort to foster dialogue and build trust. Boys in white dishdashas and skull caps at the Masjid At-Taqwa Mosque greeted visitors with red, white and blue flowers.

“All the prophets and messengers said: Patience. Be patient,” said Mohammad Islam, the mosque’s imam. “When someone (says) something that is not appropriate, be patient. Show your tolerance. Love. That’s what we are doing.”

Islam told visitors that having a cemetery was vital to his congregation’s ability to practice their religion, and that they were committed to being good neighbors. He spoke of his vision for a thriving and integrated community in Newton County. He also said he would not be held responsible for atrocities committed by others in the name of Islam, and that hateful rhetoric only feeds radicalization.

Elizabeth Allen, a nurse from Newton County, said she wanted to meet the new Muslim neighbors and let them know that not everyone was opposed to their presence.

“I understand there are concerns, especially among the older people,” Allen said. “But some of the hateful comments that I’ve seen just really inspired me to come up here because I didn’t want them to think everyone hates them, because they don’t.”

It was a far cry from the scene Monday evening at the historic Newton County courthouse, where hundreds of people cheered as speakers referred to Islam as a “death cult” that beheads “infidels” in its pursuit of worldwide domination. They were speaking during back-to-back meetings called by the county commission.

Contrary to normal public comment proceedings, speakers were instructed by commissioners not to give their names and addresses.

Islam said the county never reached out to him about the hearings, which he only heard about from the news media.

“It’s not that they invited us: You come to this public meeting, you are welcome,” Islam said. “I believe that instead of going there, let the situation calm down, we will start talking, hopefully we will come to (common) ground. We are here, we want peace.”

Siraj Karatela is a retired microbiologist and 45-year Atlanta resident who attends services at the Doraville mosque. He has seen the Muslim community grow in his nearly five decades here, and he has also noticed an uptick in anti-Muslim sentiment recently.

“It’s just getting worse because of our good buddy, bankrupt fellow,” he chuckled, referring to Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. “Americans are the most polite people, to be honest … I have found them the best, I have friends like you wouldn’t believe.”

He said the reaction in Newton County is “natural” to an unknown element, adding that the mosque is partly to blame for failing to communicate effectively.

Josh McKelvey, a Covington city councilman, was also in attendance.

“These kids are all going to school, they’re all getting post-secondary education, they’re all getting jobs that are going to contribute,” he said. “It’s not that scary. It’s not an ISIS compound.”

McKelvey later posted on Facebook that in his view, the next step is to bring leaders of the Muslim community to Newton County.

In CAIR’s letter to the feds requesting an investigation of the county’s actions, the organization pointed to comments made by Commissioner John Douglas, who represents the area where the mosque and cemetery are planned. Douglas’ statements to the Rockdale Citizen suggested his support for the moratorium was motivated by fear that more Muslims would relocate to the region.

“The first question that comes to my mind is if there are enough Muslims in south Newton County that we need to build not only a mosque but a community, a school and what all is in the plan,” Douglas told the newspaper. “Would building those things make us a prime area for the federal government to resettle refugees from the Middle East? So I do have some concerns, like the people who live down there.”

Newton County Attorney Megan Martin has said that the intention of the moratorium is not to block the mosque, but to allow the county time to review its ordinances for places of worship that include schools, residences and other “campus-like” facilities.

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