LILBURN - In a city known as home to an opulent Hindu temple, a Muslim mosque - to be built, in part, on land currently owned by the mayor - has become the center of a firestorm.
A founder of the 11-year-old local congregation of Dar-E Abbas says the mosque will be as beautiful as the temple and become a showplace for North America.
But residents near the property at U.S. Highway 29 and Hood Road are poised to protest a rezoning to allow the mosque, a cemetery and recreation elements.
"We've got a nice quiet neighborhood," said nearby resident Allan Owen, who is encouraging his neighbors to stand against the project at an Oct. 22 Planning and Zoning Commission hearing. "It's peaceful and we really don't need something like this coming in."
Owen said the issue isn't about the mosque, as Muslims have been worshipping in a house on the corner of U.S. 29 and Hood Road for more than a decade. A Baptist church or a sports complex would be just as unwelcome, he said, because of the stormwater problems and traffic issues that could come to the community.
He said it contradicts Mayor Diana Preston's campaign promises of a small-town quality of life. Preston's Hood Road home and four acres are part of the proposed rezoning.
Preston said she would not have considered selling her land if she didn't believe the mosque would benefit the community. Much of the land abbutting neighbors will be left natural, she said.
"They've been here 11 years. They are overcrowded, and they need to expand," said Preston, who had planned to downsize in the future, agreed to the sale of her property for $450,000, if the rezoning is approved.
"It's really a predicament to be in," she said of the situation, adding that she would not vote or participate in the rezoning debate.
With nowhere else in North America dedicated for the burial of Shia Muslims, Wasi Zaidi, a founding member of the mosque, said he hopes to educate the community about his religion.
The planned 10,000-square-foot mosque would be a replica of Roza of Hazrat Abbas, or a shrine to Abbas, in Karbala, Iraq, he said.
Worship services are held Fridays with classes held on Sundays. On special occasions, the house is filled with 200 to 250 worshippers, Zaidi said, and the group has had parking problems, which he hopes the additional land will fix.
Owen said the request for a rezoning to a residential-agriculture zoning is an "absolute misuse" of the classification.
But Kyle Wright, owner of the nearby Blue Rooster Cafe, said she doesn't like the idea of a group with a "political agenda" expanding on the property. She said she also wanted to talk to the attorney general about the group's self-flagellation practices.
"This is not what Lilburn needs," Wright said. "This is a Christian community, and they are anti-Christian."
Zaidi, who lives in Lilburn, said the group denounces terrorism, and is a "legion of peace."
He said the group hires a police officer and has doctors available during the ritual or "zanjeer matam," where the self-flagellation occurs once a year to lament atrocities that have befallen their ancestors.
Scott Batterton, the city's mayor pro tem, said he did not want to comment on the rezoning proposal until it comes before the City Council in November.
But he said he did not find anything improper about the mayor's involvement, as long as she does not vote or try to sway opinions.
"(Selling the property) is up to her, but it's up to us to do the best for the community," he said. "We do try to keep an impartial and unbiased opinion."