Bosnian leader says he won’t challenge Gwinnett cemetery denial

By Arielle Kass, AJC.com Staff Writer

The religious leader for a group of Bosnians whose request to build a cemetery near Snellville was denied Tuesday said he will look for new land and will not appeal the decision by Gwinnett commissioners.

But Imam Ismet Zejnelovic said he was hurt that county commissioners didn’t offer an explanation for why they refused to allow the cemetery.

“I feel bad inside today,” he said. “I feel like we are not equal.”

Gwinnett CountyResidents opposed to the cemetery’s construction said they thought it would deflate property values and lead to traffic problems.

“We can find another space,” Zejnelovic said. “I would like to avoid any problem with people like last night. I don’t need that.”

Despite the arguments about traffic and property values, emails and Facebook posts about the cemetery often expressed concerns because the Bosnians who would frequent it are mostly Muslim. One person asked county leaders to remember 9/11, while others said they were worried about chanting or burial methods.

People are often ignorant about the practices of other faiths, which leads to prejudices said Shelley Rose, the senior associate regional director of the Ant-Defamation League. Rose said wondered if the decision by county commissioners was based on facts.

Gwinnett Commissioner Tommy Hunter, who made the motion to deny the cemetery, refused to elaborate on his reasons after the vote.

“We just have to see where it goes from here,” Hunter said Tuesday night.

Though both Gwinnett’s planning commission and staff recommended the cemetery be approved, the commissioners’ decision to deny it was unanimous.

Chuck Warbington, chairman of the planning commission, said Hunter told him he voted against the cemetery because the Community of Bosniaks, which made the application, requested last-minute changes to the planning commission’s recommendations, including reduced buffers and an increase in burial plots to 2,000 from 500.

By not explaining the reason for the denial, Warbington said, it makes it look like commissioners “are against cemeteries or Muslims, which they’re not.”

Gwinnett’s population has shifted drastically over the past few decades, and it is now one of the most diverse counties in the country. Between 8,000 and 10,000 Bosnians live in the county, and had hoped to bury their dead near their homes, Bosnian community leaders said.

“You guys accepted us at our hardest time, when we were mere refugees,” said Faris Zejnelovic, the imam’s son, in making his request for the cemetery. “We found Gwinnett County to be our home.”

Faye Benson, who lives across the street from the land on Skyland Drive and Temple Johnson Road, said religion was never mentioned in community meetings.

“We would have had opposition to this if it were Baptist or Methodist or independent,” she said. “None of the people we met with were against the Muslim community.”

While members of the Community of Bosniaks said people of any religion could have been buried in the cemetery, the community is primarily Muslim.

In metro Atlanta, there has been some push-back against Muslim groups in recent years.

The Kennesaw City Council approved a mosque last year only after a lawsuit and federal investigation was threatened. In 2010, Alpharetta denied the expansion of an Islamic Center. And it took the U.S. Justice Department to push Lilburn officials to allow construction of a mosque there in 2011.

Doug Dillard, an attorney with Pursley Friese Torgrimson who has represented religious groups in some of those cases, said he was surprised by the commission’s vote.

“I can’t imagine a more peaceful neighbor than a cemetery,” he said. “I would think there’s room to argue that the decision of the Board of Commissioners was arbitrary and capricious.”

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