- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 26, 2002

LAWRENCEVILLE, Ga. — On its face, it was a zoning dispute a disagreement between Muslims who wanted to build a cemetery and neighbors who were worried about their property values.
Gwinnett County planners put it on the calendar for a regular zoning meeting. The date they chose was Sept. 18, 2001.
Then terrorism changed the world and exposed raw religious differences between Muslims and their neighbors. Now the zoning dispute is a bitter fight, and the county government is torn over which side to take.
"It was already an issue of passion, an issue of opposition, and all that was present even before September 11. It's going to be a tough decision," said Bert Nasuti, the chief county planner.
After a postponement because of the high emotions following the September 11 attacks and then the planning commission's move not to make a decision the full county commission is to hear the debate tonight.
Proposing the cemetery is the Georgia Islamic Institute of Religious and Social Sciences, which wants to put a 1,500-plot burial ground on a five-acre parcel of land in the Grayson Oaks subdivision of this Atlanta suburb.
But property owners say they are disturbed by the observant Muslims' burial ritual, which calls for wrapping the body in a shroud, without a casket or vault, and interring it within 24 hours of death.
Some residents say they worry that pathogens from the decomposing bodies would seep into the soil and poison groundwater, despite preliminary state environmental testing that has shown the cemetery would probably be safe.
The Muslims once even suggested burying the bodies in coffins, but the offer has not satisfied the homeowners' concern.
"I don't want my child to grow up in three years and have some disease from the water," homeowner Heather Stonecypher told the planning commission Feb. 5. "We don't want to be somebody's guinea pigs."
Jane Smith, a professor of Islamic studies at Hartford Seminary and the author of "Islam in America," said she could not recall a similar environmental dispute over a Muslim cemetery in the United States. She did say opposition to Muslim cemeteries is common, both in America and in Europe, by people unfamiliar with the religion who see it as an intrusion.
"The issues that are being raised here are not surprising at all," she said. "There are four or five issues of major concern to Muslims, and one of them clearly is space to be able to appropriately dispose of their dead."
Sayyid M. Syeed, secretary-general of the Islamic Society of North America, said the dispute over environmental concerns is unique.
"The Muslim population has increased so much during the last 25 years. We have these Muslim graveyards in almost every city. But this has not come up," he said.
Islamic institute attorney Dennis Still said the Grayson Oaks neighbors were attacking the Muslims as they might some bizarre cult.

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