Hundreds of residents are expected to attend two town hall meetings Monday to discuss a planned mosque (SABINE MORROW/AJC STAFF PHOTO).

Newton County in uproar over planned mosque

Hundreds of residents of Newton County, concerned about a Muslim community’s plans to build a mosque and cemetery there, are expected to gather Monday for town hall meetings.

The Al Maad Al Islami mosque in Doraville bought 135 acres on Georgia 162 last year and received a county permit for a place of worship. But when an engineer hired by the mosque met with county development staff two weeks ago, word spread.

Many residents reacted angrily to the news and demanded the county commission put a stop to the project. Earlier this week, the commission issued a five-week moratorium on construction of new places of worship.

Monday’s meetings are intended to give residents an opportunity to ask questions, county officials say, even though the mosque has not submitted any plans yet, nor has it applied for building permits.

“STAND STRONG,” reads a post on the STOP the Mosque Newton County Georgia Facebook page, which as of Friday had 645 likes. “THIS IS OUR COUNTY!!! GO SOMEWHERE ELSE. IF YOU BUILD IT, THEY WILL COME.”

John Douglas, the county commissioner who represents the area, expressed similar fears to The Rockdale Citizen.

“Would building those things make us a prime area for the federal government to resettle refugees from the Middle East?” he asked the paper. “So I do have some concerns, like the people who live down there.”

Mohammad Islam is the imam, or religious leader, of Al Maad Al Islami. He said he expected some pushback, but was surprised by the intensity of the reaction.

Islam said his organization was planning a cemetery and “simple” mosque on the site, purchased for $675,000. Eventually, Islam said, the congregation would like to build a park, residences and a school.

“I didn’t think it would come to this point,” Islam said, noting an increase in anti-Muslim rhetoric nationally.

The NAACP and more than a dozen Muslim groups have characterized the county’s handling of the mosque as discriminatory and called for a federal probe of the county by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Newton County Attorney Megan Martin said the moratorium was designed to give the county time to study and possibly update its rules on “campus-like” places of worship that include schools, residences and other facilities. She said the county had no intention of violating the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act or the Constitution.

“Blocking a mosque is illegal,” she said. “There are Constitutional protections for those seeking to exercise their faith.”

Despite the hostility expressed by some in Newton County, Islam said he harbors no ill will toward opponents of the mosque and cemetery.

“I have to pray for them that God might change their hearts,” he said. “Where are we going to bury our children? They were born here and raised here. When they die, they deserve respect. When I see this controversy, I’m saddened. But I pray.”

The Rev. William B. Wade Jr., pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Covington, has lived in the county for more than three decades. He knows people who fall on both sides of the issue, and said opponents of the mosque are acting out of fear.

“As Americans, we should be grateful for equal protection under the law,” Wade said. “As Christians, we are called to active love of our neighbors, even our enemies.”

Similar issues have arisen across Georgia, including Lilburn and Kennesaw, when mosques were proposed there.

Azadeh N. Shahshahani, legal and advocacy director for Project South, an Atlanta-based social justice organization, said opponents often “disguise” their anti-Muslim bias as concern about parking, noise or traffic. Project South is among the organizations calling for a federal investigation of Newton County.

“When Muslims attempt to build houses of worship or cemeteries to attend to the needs of the congregation … all of a sudden you have racist and Islamophobic comments that are expressed openly, sometimes by county or city leaders,” she said. “What’s happening is really a disturbing development.”

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