The town center in Covington, Georgia, is a southern gem. 

On the day I visited earlier this month, the renovated storefronts, quaint village green and old clock tower were decked out in their holiday best at the start of the Thanksgiving and Christmas season. 

But a few short months ago, the scene was very different. Hundreds of people had descended on the Newton County courthouse, most to express their opposition to a planned Muslim cemetery and mosque outside of town. 

Suddenly, little Covington, the county seat for a population of about 100,000 people, was in the national spotlight. 

So many people showed up to raise their voices against the proposed Muslim building project that the public meeting scheduled on the issue had to be split up into two separate sessions. 

As described by The Economist, people stood up in the courthouse and “denounced Islam for its supposed violence and extremism. They predicted that Covington... was set to become a hell of violence and jihad, in which their families would no longer be safe.”

One woman said to a local TV news crew, “How do we know it’s not an ISIS camp, training camp?” 

That was in August, not long after Keith Ellis says he got wind of the cemetery plans. Ellis is the chairman of the Board of Commissioners for Newton County. He says, at first, people reacted out of fear of a religion that they only really knew through TV news. 

“As a Christian, I probably reacted in some of the same ways. I will have to admit that I was a little nervous for the future of Newton County,” Ellis told me. 

At the height of the controversy, protesters from a self-declared militia showed up outside the Covington courthouse, some of them carrying assault weapons and anti-Muslim signs. Ellis and his fellow commissioners imposed a temporary moratorium on all new building projects funded by religious institutions. 

Looking back on that decision, Ellis said it was not a real solution, in part because the moratorium halted the permit process for Christians as well. 

“Some of my Baptist friends were upset with me,” Ellis said. 

The moratorium expired in late September. “I don’t think any of us want to get in the business of re-writing the Constitution,” he added, referring to the freedom of religion guaranteed by the First Amendment.   

Ellis said a lot of the initial nervousness over the Muslim cemetery and mosque project has evaporated. 
But Imam Mohammad Islam, the man who purchased the 135-acre plot of land for development, says he is willing to be patient. 

The imam came to the US from Bangladesh in 1994 with his wife, and he founded the Al Ma’ad Al Islami mosque on the northeast edge of Atlanta back in 2005. The congregation has grown to about a thousand people. And Islam said there is a real need for a Muslim cemetery and body preparation facility. 

He said he was surprised by the negative reaction to his building project, but it doesn’t make him feel unwelcome in America. 

“I always feel that, number one, that I’m not alone. That’s my faith, that my God is always with me. And Quran teaches me that as long as you don’t violate [God’s will], then you’ll always be protected,” he said. 

Islam wears a traditional hat and robe, and he’s not particularly tall. But he jokingly warned me that he can handle himself just fine on the basketball court. He said his long-term goal is to build a mosque, a religious school, a nature park and a small organic farm in Newton County. 

But he said he will wait until temperatures cool further. 

Islam took me on a drive through the semi-rural area where his land sits, undeveloped for now. He pointed out the American flag he put up that’s visible from the highway. He said people don’t seem to believe that Muslims love the country where they live. 

“We want to show that we love America,” he said.

Islam seems pretty easy going, but he admitted to me that the whole controversy has probably driven up his blood pressure. And he said he could have done things differently, too. Maybe better community outreach on his part, Islam said, would have prevented some of the most intense public reaction.

Now, the imam is reaching out to other people of faith to help him with public relations. He has visited area churches and plans to hold an open house at his mosque. And he’s connected with people like Lyn Pace, a United Methodist minister and the chaplain at Oxford College of Emory University. 

This is not an easy time for Muslims in America. But Pace said standing next to his Muslim friends and neighbors is where he needs to be. 

“For me, as a Christian, it’s exactly the kind of responsibility Jesus calls me to. Community is a place where we are responsible for one another,” Pace said. 

Sometimes, Pace said, this can feel like an uphill struggle. 

“But that doesn’t mean we stop,” he said. “It’s the call from Jesus and that life and I try to emulate. It also speaks to the religious freedom that’s been prized in this country from its outset. And then, it’s the experience I’ve had with people we might say are ‘the other.’”  

Last weekend, there was another small protest in Covington against the cemetery and mosque project. But some Christian friends of Imam Mohammad Islam showed up as well, to hold a counter-protest and to speak up for their Muslim neighbors. 

Clarification: An earlier version of this story referred to guns carried by protesters as "assault rifles," which many consider a reference to fully-automatic military weapons. This has been edited to the broader category of "assault weapons."

From PRI's The World ©2016 PRI