ATLANTA – A proposal to build a mosque and Muslim cemetery has so angered some residents of Newton County outside Atlanta that their commissioners have temporarily banned all building permit approvals for religious institutions.
The moratorium prompted the Council on American-Islamic Relations and the NAACP to request a federal civil rights investigation in Newton County. A spokesman for U.S. Attorney John Horn confirmed receipt of this complaint Tuesday, but declined comment.
Mohammad Islam, the religious leader behind the proposal, said he doesn't intend to take any legal action; instead, he met Tuesday with local leaders of other faiths in Newton County, seeking their support for a fresh start.
"Our hope is that we will build a strong relationship and the challenges we are facing can be overcome," Islam said. "We respect them, we love them. Their peace is our peace, their security is our security."
Opposition gathered swiftly this month as word spread that members of a mosque in Doraville, a northwest Atlanta suburb, planned to build on 135 acres in rural Newton County about 40 miles southeast of Atlanta. Their imam explained that it has been difficult to uphold Muslim funeral rituals, and so they need a place to perform services and bury their dead.
One commissioner questioned whether the project would make Newton County "a prime area for the federal government to resettle refugees from the Middle East" in an interview with The Rockdale Citizen, a local newspaper. Two public meetings were held, both crowded with angry opponents who clapped and cheered when people expressed fears about global terrorism.
In video recorded by WXIA-TV, one man says it's hard to "draw the line between innocent Muslims and radical Muslims." A woman said she shouldn't be labeled "a bigot" because she worries about large crowds. Another woman repeated the false claim that President Barack Obama is a Muslim.
Edward Mitchell, executive director of CAIR's Georgia chapter, said that when "anti-Muslim rhetoric" and the actions of Islamic extremists create mistrust and division, authorities should be educating their constituents, "not fanning the flames."
"Let's just skip to the ending, the happy ending," Mitchell said. "Let's work together as a community to make sure everyone's concerns are addressed in a positive and peaceful way, not a hysterical way."
Newton County Manager Lloyd Kerr didn't address this bigger picture in a statement Tuesday. It said simply that while the five-week moratorium is in place, county officials "will review zoning ordinances for all places of worship and make recommendations for necessary changes if applicable to the Board of Commissioners."
Some Georgia communities, such as Lilburn and Kennesaw, also opposed mosques in recent years, before relenting to their construction. Others, such as Dekalb County, have become havens for refugees.
But places like Newton County need not fear becoming magnets for refugees, said Amy Crownover, spokeswoman for New American Pathways. The organization is one of five refugee resettlement organizations in Georgia that are contracted with the federal government to assist refugees arriving in the United States.
"We work in partnership with communities, looking for communities where refugees can be successful," which requires easy access to public transportation, jobs, English classes and other services. Newton County "isn't an ideal setting," Crownover said.
Follow Kathleen Foody at http://twitter.com/katiefoody. Her work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/journalist/kathleen-foody.