A week the after shootings, New Zealand joins Muslim community for Friday prayers

A week the after shootings, New Zealand joins Muslim community for Friday prayers
CHRISTCHURCH, NEW ZEALAND—At 1:30 on Friday afternoon, Muslims in Christchurch began their weekly prayers. A week earlier, these same prayers were interrupted by a gunman who burst into the Al Noor Mosque and killed 42 people, then drove across town to kill eight more at another mosque.

But this week, the Muslim population was joined by tens of thousands of other New Zealanders, who stood behind the rows of worshippers. They listened as the call to prayer rang out across Hagley Park, opposite the Al Noor Mosque, and across the country on national television and radio broadcasts.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern looks on as she attends Islamic prayers in Hagley Park near Al Noor mosque on March 22, 2019 in Christchurch, New Zealand.  (Kai Schwoerer / GETTY IMAGES)

Then the country fell silent for two minutes to remember the unspeakable tragedy that occurred here, shaking New Zealand’s belief that it was an isolated utopia at the bottom of the world.

Many women — including Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, television newsreaders, nurses, students and police officers — donned head scarves in solidarity with Muslim women, some of whom had said they were scared to go out with such a recognizable symbol of their faith. They could be seen on the streets of Christchurch throughout the day, not just during the remembrance.

In brief remarks before the silence in Hagley Park, Ardern cited the prophet Muhammad as saying that “the believers, in their mutual kindness, compassion and sympathy are just like one body.”

“When any part of the body suffers, the whole body feels pain,” she said. “New Zealand mourns with you. We are one.”

Broken-hearted but not broken: New Zealand prays together

It was the first terrorist attack of this kind in New Zealand and the worst mass shooting the country has ever seen.

Fifty people were killed in the Friday attacks, the work of a lone gunman who distributed a manifesto full of anti-immigrant rhetoric and then live-streamed the shootings. The 28-year-old Australian is now in custody.

In an open air ceremony in front of about 20,000 people, imams who had been in the Al Noor Mosque during the attack — including one who was featured on the front page of the local paper, covered in blood, the day after the attack — led the prayers.

“We are broken-hearted, but we are not broken. We are alive, we are together, we are determined to not let anyone divide us,” Imam Gamal Fouda told the crowd gathered in Christchurch.

“To the families of the victims, your loved ones did not die in vain,” he continued. “Their blood has watered the seeds of hope. Through them the world see the beauty of Islam and the beauty of our unity.”

The local paper, The Press, ran the words “Salam, peace” in English and Arabic on a front page that was blank except for the names of the 50 who died.

“I think it’s beautiful,” said Mohammad Fahmi, a 29-year-old doctor from Malaysia who moved to New Zealand a decade ago to study medicine. “As a Muslim myself, it really helps to know that the rest of New Zealand is with us. It’s especially beautiful to see all these New Zealand women wearing hijab,” he said after the prayers in Hagley Park.

Authorities had been hoping to have the mosques ready to open in time for prayers on Friday. Instead, they will be handed back to the communities on Saturday.

Karen Shepard, a Christchurch woman, said she wore a crimson head scarf to the park to show her support and solidarity with the Muslim women. “I am so sorry that this happened and I will do everything in my power to stop anything like this ever happening again,” she said.

In the capital of Wellington, hundreds of people formed a human chain around the Kilbirnie mosque as a sign of their protection for the Muslim community.

In the northern city of Tauranga, the mosque was overflowing, leading some worshippers to lay their prayer mats outside in the sun.

There were similar scenes at mosques in Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city, and thousands were expected at a vigil Friday night. Some Muslims were supplying head scarves and helping women who wanted to wear them put them on.

Separately, after the prayers in Christchurch, families gathered as a line of 27 hearses brought 27 bodies to a cemetery here to finally lay the victims to rest.

Many families expressed frustration at the length of time it took authorities to release the bodies, meaning they could not be buried within the 24 hours usually required by Islam.

The first of the 27 to be buried Friday was Naeem Rashid, who was hailed as a hero for trying to tackle the gunman at the Al Noor Mosque. He died in the process.

Rashid, 50, was a teacher in Christchurch who moved here from Pakistan a decade ago. His eldest son Talha, 21, was also killed at the mosque. A group of mourners, some of them dressed in Pakistani shalwar kameez, performed a Maori haka in front of their open caskets, draped in both New Zealand and Pakistani flags, before they were buried.

With Friday’s funerals, all the victims of the shootings have now been laid to rest. Forty-one were buried in Christchurch’s Memorial Park Cemetery, while the others were buried elsewhere in New Zealand or repatriated to their home countries.

The New Zealand government has covered the costs of the funerals.

Muslims comprise about 1 per cent of New Zealand’s 4.8-million-strong population. In the wake of the attacks, many New Zealanders have acted to show solidarity with this community.

But not everyone is impressed with the embrace of Muslim traditions.

One Muslim woman, writing anonymously on the Stuff website, said the head scarf movement was “nothing but cheap tokenism.” “It’s a gimmick and pretty distasteful. All Muslims in New Zealand appreciate the sentiment, and the aroma we have received has been phenomenal since the terrorist attack last week, but support does not have to look like this,” she wrote, using the Maori word for love.

But conservative columnists in New Zealand were silent Friday, with several taking anti-Muslim or anti-immigration remarks from their websites or Twitter pages. The right-leaning National Party even took down a petition against the U.N. Global Migration Compact, which it had criticized as requiring New Zealand to cede its sovereignty over immigration policy.

But overseas commentators were more blunt. Tarek Fatah, a columnist at the Toronto Sun, asked Ardern on Twitter to “spare a moment and reflect on the damage you are doing to the struggle of Muslim women in Iran, Pakistan, Egypt, Europe & several other countries where the Hijab is symbol of Islamic patriarchy.”

A total of 27 people remain in hospital following the attacks, including a four-year-old girl who was shot three times.
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