Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Newton mosque fight may face U.S. inquiry

Feds review request for probe after group alleges discrimination.

Newton County residents and members of the Al Maad Al Islami congregation gather Tuesday in the Doraville mosque for a talk with Imam Mohammad Islam. The group wants to build a mosque and cemetery in Newton County. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

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. Al Maad Al Islami, the Muslim congregation behind the project, 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.”
The county defended its actions in a letter dated Aug. 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, Al Maad Al Islami opened its doors in Doraville on Tuesday to a handful of clergy and residents from Newton County in an effort to open a dialogue and build trust. Boys in white dishdashas and skull caps 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 the 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 Al Maad Al Islami. 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.


(Note last 2 paragraphs of this article, looks like no refugees are going to Newton County)

Civil rights groups defend mosque, cemetery outside 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.


Residents vent about mosque at town hall meetings

Of the approximately 600 people who attended the meetings, about 70 spoke over a span of three hours, sharing their concerns about increased traffic, noise and zoning issues that may come with the development. Many said they were also concerned about cultural differences, while others said they are fearful of extremist groups. A handful spoke in support of the proposed development, which could also include a school, college and residential neighborhood. None of the speakers was required to give their name.
At times the meeting took on a religious fervor, with several speakers exhorting those present to pray for the county. One man, who said he’s lived in Newton County for 59 years and pastors a church near the site of the proposed mosque development said he — and he suspected most others — were present due to fear of the unknown.
“… All I know about Muslims is what the news reports stream out to us every day,” he said. “They talk about ISIS and ISIS operatives, radical Islam, Islamic sleeper cells that are trying to get into our country … that’s all that we hear about Muslims, so it’s hard for folks like me, and probably most of you tonight, to draw the line between innocent Muslims and radical Muslims.”
Several residents said they felt they were unfairly stigmatized because of their concerns about the development.
“It’s not about worship,” said one woman. “It is about a big development in our countryside that nobody knew about … If that would have happened with any other thing besides a religious organization, everybody would have known, we’ve have had a town meeting … what bothers me is I’m labeled a bigot just because I question it. That shouldn’t be.”
A man of Middle Eastern descent said he had lived in Newton County for eight years and has many Christian friends. “I have been welcomed in Covington and have never had hate directed toward me,” he said. “I think I’ve seen more hate tonight than I’ve seen in eight years.”
He pointed out that many Muslims are fighting alongside American soldiers in the war on terror. “Muslims are the people who died on the front lines to protect these freedoms that we have today,” he said.
A teenage girl also called on the crowd for more understanding.
“I don’t think many of you really know how they are as a people,” she said of Muslims. “I would like to say that not long ago people like me, black people, were treated the same way.
“I don’t think that you are concerned about zoning; I think many of you are offended that they want to come here,” she continued. “I can say that I am more concerned about my siblings living among you people than the Muslims.”
Citizens’ comments were met with applause and cheers, but the crowd was generally well-behaved. The Newton County Sheriff’s Office provided extra security for the meetings.
Board of Commissioners Chairman Keith Ellis and four of the district commissioners were present but did not offer any input.
District 1 Commissioner John Douglas, in whose district the mosque is proposed to be constructed, said he was satisfied with the outcome of the two meetings.
“This was their time to talk tonight, and everybody got a chance to speak,” said Douglas. “I thought it went very well.”
District 5 Commissioner Levie Maddox did not attend Monday night, although he seconded the motion to call for the meetings, which was approved unanimously last week.
In emailed comments to the community, Maddox further said that the moratorium enacted last Tuesday night should be lifted at the board’s next meeting, on Aug. 22. The moratorium was approved unanimously by the board.
“Newton County does not need to display a trampling of the First Amendment to the world,” Maddox wrote. “Speaking as part of a small business, the moratorium needs to be reversed next Tuesday night, as it only hurts our local businesses.”
Commissioners last week enacted a five-week moratorium in an effort to allow the county’s planning staff time to review zoning provisions and the current trends for places of worship. The decision was prompted by a proposal by Doraville non-profit Al Maad Al Islami Inc. to develop a mosque and accompanying cemetery on 135 acres at Ga. Highway 162 and County Line Road. The county’s current zoning ordinance allows places of worship in all zoning categories in the county, provided the project meets minimum requirements of the ordinance.
The Georgia chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, along with other groups, has called on the Board of Commissioners to lift the moratorium. CAIR has also asked the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate.
“We thank the office of the U.S. attorney for agreeing to review our request regarding the situation in Newton County,” said Edward Ahmed Mitchell, executive director of CAIR-GA, in a press release. “However, we remain hopeful that Newton County’s commissioners will reverse course and uphold religious freedom without the need for outside legal intervention.”
CAIR was scheduled to hold a joint press conference with the Georgia NAACP and others on the Newton County mosque issue on Tuesday to respond to the “anti-Muslim rhetoric expressed at town hall meetings on the issue (Monday) night,” according to CAIR.

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