A meeting about lifting a moratorium on construction plans for the first-ever mosque in a quaint Georgia county was canceled this week after officials discovered a video in which a self-described militia group threatened violence.
The video was filmed at a church across from the site of the proposed mosque and Islamic cemetery in Covington, an Atlanta suburb. The video's creator, Chris Hill, 42, told NBC News he shot it while a protest was going on over the weekend.
"I was just shooting from the hip is what I was doing, and saying, 'Right over there, this is going to be a future ISIS training group. This is where you're going to see terrorism taking hold in Newton County.' It's tied to terrorism, everything from 9/11 to Boston bombings to the Fort Hood shooting, to the coup in Turkey. It's all connected," Hill, a Marine veteran who's now a paralegal living in McDonough, Georgia, told NBC News.
He took the video down after a churchgoer expressed concern that the people in the video could get in trouble, particularly one individual who climbed up a tree and hung an American flag in it during the protest.
There were no arrests, he said. The Newton County Sheriff's Office didn't return a phone call from NBC News.
But in response to the video, Newton County officials canceled a meeting that was supposed to happen on Tuesday, citing security concerns.
"Unfortunately in today’s society, uncivil threats or intentions must be taken seriously," Newton County Manager Lloyd Kerr said in a statement.
The scrapped meeting is the latest in a slew of obstacles for the proposed development, which is set to be built on 135 acres of land on Highway 162 and County Road Line in Covington.
The proposal, quietly filed about seven months ago, was discovered by the Newton Citizen, a local newspaper, in August.
Since then, the proposal has been met with backlash online and in heated town halls — where residents have made comments such as, “It’s hard for people like me, and probably most of you tonight, to draw the line between innocent Muslims and radical Muslims, since they’ve all claimed to serve the same God and they all claim to follow the same book,” according to NBC affiliate WXIA.
In mid-August, Newton County commissioners put a five-week moratorium in place on building permits for all houses of worship — an unusual move for a county that, years ago, passed a zoning ordinance specifically designed to fast-track the construction process for places of worship.
Commissioners said the moratorium was designed to give the county time to review zoning provisions. They then voted to call a special meeting for Tuesday to decide whether to lift the moratorium before the five weeks were up.
The picturesque town, dotted with antebellum homes, is often used as the backdrop for films and TV, giving it the unofficial slogan of being the "Hollywood of the South."
Hill, who displayed a weapon in the video and threatened to hold an armed protest outside the commissioners' meeting, told NBC News he is the leader of a local chapter of a militia group that calls itself the III% Security Force and is dedicated to defending the Constitution.
He said he would continue to protest the mosque.
"As an American, I have a right to defend. As a Marine, I have a right and a duty to defend our country and our Constitution," he said.
The Georgia chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations condemned commissioners for canceling their meeting after the video surfaced.
"American Muslims, every time that we go outside, we are standing up to extremists. If we can do that, then a county commission surrounded by law enforcement officers should be able to do the same thing," executive director Edward Ahmed Mitchell told NBC News.
Newton County commissioners didn't answer questions from NBC News, but referred to their statement, which said that the moratorium will now be up on the date it was originally set to expire: Sept. 21.
The group behind the mosque proposal is a non-profit organization called Al maad al Islami, which has a mosque, Masjid At-Taqwa, based in nearby Doraville.
The mosque's imam, Mohammad Islam, who is the CEO of the nonprofit, told NBC News the idea to build a mosque and adjacent cemetery came to him after one of his current mosque member's wife died about four years ago and her body wasn't properly washed and prepped for burial according to Muslim standards.
"[The space] is our need. It is not just for fun," he said.
With few Muslim funeral homes nearby, funerals for his mosque members are costly and complicated, requiring a police escort for the funeral procession, he said. When the group found the open space in Covington, "We went there and we looked at it and we liked it."
Covington, about 35 miles from Atlanta, has about 14,000 residents. The picturesque town, dotted with antebellum homes, is often used as the backdrop for films and TV, earning it an unofficial slogan: the "Hollywood of the South."
Islam said he still has positive feelings about the area, despite the resistance from the community and the militant video posted to social media.
"I don't take it negatively as to what they're doing," he said. "I would love to hear from them. That's what our religion is — patient, tolerant."