Imam declares the country’s spirit unbreakable as funerals for the 50 victims of the mosque shootings continue
By Rachel Pannett, Lucy Craymer & Rob Taylor, March 22, 2019
CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand—Thousands of people donned headscarves at an open-air prayer service in a show of unity with Muslim victims of New Zealand’s deadliest peacetime massacre, as a cleric declared the nation’s spirit to be unbreakable.
In a park across the road from Al Noor mosque, where a gunman killed most of his 50 victims a week earlier, some of those injured in the assault joined Muslim representatives from around the world. New Zealanders embraced them and offered flowers, and state television broadcast the Islamic call to prayer for the first time.
“This terrorist sought to tear our nation apart with an evil ideology that has torn the world apart. But instead, we have shown New Zealand is unbreakable,” Imam Gamal Fouda told mourners. “To the families of the victims, your loved ones did not die in vain. Their blood has watered the seeds of hope.”
Last Friday, the imam had been delivering a sermon when bullets began tearing through the mosque. He said he hid in the main prayer hall with other worshipers. Forty-two people were killed there and another died later in the hospital. Seven others were killed at the Linwood Islamic Centre a short distance away.
Funerals continued for a third day Friday, with many victims buried at Memorial Park Cemetery.
The shooter, Brenton Tarrant, is in custody and faces one count of murder. Police say more charges will follow. The 28-year-old Australian hasn’t entered a plea and plans to represent himself in court. Investigators are examining his path to radicalization, including his online activities and his extensive travels in Europe, where he visited historic battlegrounds where Christians and Muslims clashed.
Until last week’s atrocity, New Zealand was widely seen as a bastion of tolerance and stability, largely removed from the political upheaval and rising anti-immigration sentiment roiling other democracies. But the bloodshed has forced New Zealanders to confront a new reality that their nation isn’t immune to hate crimes and violence of the type seen in the U.S. and Europe.
“Modern white supremacy is an international threat that knows no borders, being exported and globalized like never before,” said Jonathan Greenblatt, chief executive of the U.S.-based Anti-Defamation League. “The hatred that led to violence in Pittsburgh and Charlottesville is finding new adherents around the world.”
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has won international admiration for her handling of the crisis. She announced changes to New Zealand’s gun laws—including a ban on military-style semiautomatic weapons—within six days of the attacks, and has sought to counter racial divisions with a message of unity.
“Those loved ones were brothers, daughters, fathers and children. They were New Zealanders. They are us,” she said in parliament this week. In a phone call with President Trump after the attacks, Ms. Ardern said she urged him to offer “sympathy and love for all Muslim communities.”
Ms. Ardern’s response has made her a torchbearer for a brand of progressive politics in short supply around the world today, political analysts said.
“There has been this shift to right-wing populist leaderships in a lot of countries…and what we saw in New Zealand was the opposite of that,” said Eric Rosand, a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who specializes in U.S.-Islamic relations.
Mohammad Alshaikh, 20, a student at Qalam Seminary in Texas, hadn’t heard of Ms. Ardern a week ago. Now, he said, her name keeps coming up when he meets with young people at the community groups he runs at mosques in Dallas.
“In America when we think of a leader we think Donald Trump and I think it was very refreshing for all of the youth to know that there are other world leaders,” he said. “It brings hope.”
Mohsin Ansari, a Baltimore physician who traveled to Christchurch for Friday’s memorial, said social media had amplified Ms. Ardern’s message. He praised her for calling out Islamophobia and for asking women to wear headscarves to memorial services as a mark of respect for the victims.
Nearby, Shane Tanu, wearing sunglasses and a leather jacket of the Maori “Peacemakers” street gang, said the shootings had drawn together New Zealanders of all backgrounds in a way unimaginable previously.
“We will not tolerate this race s— anymore,” said Mr. Tanu, 51. “Everyone is choosing not to let one man’s hate and anger affect them. As a nation we are manning up and showing each other respect.”
The attacks shone a light on racist elements in the country. In Auckland recently, nationalists protested against the United Nations Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, a pact under which countries aim to cooperate on migration policy. Opposition first emerged online, including on sites like the neo-Nazi Daily Stormer, which warned the agreement would “Bring 60 Million Brown People to Europe.” New Zealand’s human-rights commissioner is calling for more to be done to curb hate speech.
In Christchurch, retirees Margaret Hadley and Helen Baker, both 69, had never attended Muslim prayers before. At the end of Friday’s service, they spontaneously embraced Ethiopian migrant Nureddin Abdurahman, a man they had never met.
“It’s a wake-up call to politicians and a wake-up call world-wide that right-wing extremism has infiltrated so many countries,” Ms. Hadley said.
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