UPDATE: The 111% Security Force, a self-described militia, is planning an armed protest at the Newton County Courthouse this evening at 6 p.m.
Citing concerns about crowd control and hostile social media posts, Newton County commissioners canceled a Tuesday meeting where they planned to address a Muslim congregation’s proposal to build a burial ground and mosque.
“This decision was not taken without careful deliberation and consideration of concerns regarding crowd control and law enforcement regarding social media postings evidencing hostilities in the community,” read a statement posted to the county’s website Monday afternoon.
Although the commission didn’t say which social media post it viewed as hostile, a spokesperson for the Newton County Sheriff’s Department confirmed it was investigating whether a local militia’s opposition to the mosque and burial ground constitutes a threat.
On Sunday, the 111% Security Force held a protest on the grounds of County Line Baptist Church on Ga. 162, across the street from the 135-acre parcel purchased last year by a Muslim congregation from Doraville.
In a video of the protest posted online over the weekend, Henry County resident Chris Hill said the site was a proposed ISIS training camp and claimed Muslims are followers of the Antichrist. Another man hangs an American Flag from a tree on what appears to be property belonging to the Muslim congregation. The video has since been taken down.
Hill said he stood by his comments but took down the video because of “perception.”
“Hanging a flag on private property, the optics of that look bad, so we pulled it,” Hill said. “It was a little sensationalism. … I still have fundamental differences with Islam.”
Sheriff Ezell Brown decided to open an investigation after viewing the group’s video.
Hill, speaking before the county made its announcement, said his group planned a peaceful, armed protest at the historic county courthouse where the meeting was to take place. Reacting to news of the cancellation, he said he would hold the same protest at the next meeting.
The congregation of Masjid At Taqwa, represented by Al Maad Al Islami non-profit, bought the tract with the intention of building a cemetery, burial preparation facility and mosque. Al Maad Al Islami was issued a county permit in its name for a place of worship in June 2015 when it purchased the land.
But last month, the county commission issued a moratorium on new places of worship in response to local opposition to the project. The commission was expected to lift that moratorium Tuesday after more than a dozen groups complained to the Department of Justice.
The congregation’s imam, Mohammad Islam, said he has not reached out to law enforcement about the video or other threats he has received. He said he would prefer to meet with opponents face to face and lead by example.
“Whatever they want to say, I am ready to hear anything,” he said. “If they tell me ‘You’re a killer, you’re a terrorist,’ whatever, I will keep quiet and I want to listen. … This is the way that I teach my people: Be patient.”
As Hill and a small handful of mosque opponents were holding their protest Sunday, some 40 members of Masjid At Taqwa were mingling with area residents at the Epiphany Lutheran Church in nearby Conyers at the invitation of Pastor David Armstrong-Reiner.
Armstrong-Reiner called any invocation of the Antichrist in reference to Islam, “a complete misreading of scripture.”
“Anything which goes against love of neighbor, to me, is that which goes against Christ,” he said.
Armstrong-Reiner said he wanted to give members of his church a chance to interact with and ask questions of their new Muslim neighbors. He said several members of his Lutheran congregation, including one man who lost a relative in the attacks on the World Trade Center, were reassured by the meeting.
“There was a bridge that was built, and I’m hoping it’s not the last bridge,” Armstrong-Reiner said.