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

Members of the Muslim community pray Friday in Hagley Park, near Al Noor Mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand. (Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images)

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 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 worshipers. They listened as the call to prayer rang out across Hagley Park, opposite Al Noor Mosque, and across the country on national television and radio broadcasts.

Then the country fell silent for two minutes to remember the 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 headscarves 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.”

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

Fifty people were killed in the attacks, the work of a gunman who authorities say distributed a manifesto full of anti-immigrant rhetoric before live-streaming the shootings. A 28-year-old Australian man was arrested and charged with murder in the case.

‘Hiding in plain sight’: In quiet New Zealand city, alleged shooter crafted manifesto

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

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

“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 sees 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 headscarf 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, 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 worshipers 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 headscarves and helping women who wanted to wear them put them on.

Separately, after the prayers in Christchurch, families gathered as a line of 26 hearses brought 26 bodies to a cemetery here to 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 26 to be buried Friday was Naeem Rashid, who was hailed as a hero for trying to tackle the gunman at Al Noor.

Prime minister receives worldwide praise for her response to the mosque shootings

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 dressed in Pakistani shalwar kameez, performed a Maori haka in front of their open caskets, draped in New Zealand and Pakistani flags, before they were buried.

With Friday’s funerals, all the victims of the shootings have now been interred. 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 constitute about 1 percent of New Zealand’s population of 4.8 million. 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 headscarf movement was “nothing but cheap tokenism.”

“It’s a gimmick and pretty distasteful. All Muslims in New Zealand appreciate the sentiment, and the aroha 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.

Conservative columnists in New Zealand were silent Friday, with several removing anti-Muslim or anti-immigration remarks from their websites or Twitter pages. The right-leaning National Party 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.

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 remained hospitalized after the attacks, including a 4-year-old girl who was shot three times.

The New Zealand attack ratchets up pressure on Europe’s anti-immigrant right

New Zealand prime minister: ‘You will never hear me mention his name’

Their fellow congregants died in Pittsburgh. Now Jews are supporting Muslims in New Zealand.

Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

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