Terror in Chch

Thousands gather in grief and love

A week after New Zealand’s worst mass murder in peace time, thousands gathered in a show of respect, solidarity and love. David Williams reports.

The ripples started early.

As Imam Gamal Fouda’s speech unfolded – a sprawling lesson of love triumphing over hate, of being broken-hearted but not broken – the clapping rippled through the thousands-strong crowd at Christchurch’s South Hagley Park.

Sometimes the clapping washed, like waves crashing with pain and grief, out to sea. Then, the reverse. Healing waves, loaded with messages of hope and unity, seemed to cleanse the crowd.

“Hate will be undone and love will redeem us,” Fouda said.

The national call to prayer – the Jumu’ah – within sight of the Al Noor Mosque, honoured the victims of last Friday’s shooting massacre that killed 50 people and, according to Fouda, injured 42.

‘We are all one’

They came from Christchurch, from other parts of New Zealand, even overseas. Their messages, and reasons for coming, were similar.

Mohammed Shareef, his wife, Sharina, his daughter and grand-daughters came from Auckland. Shareef said he didn’t know anyone who was affected personally, but, as a Muslim, they were all his brothers and sisters. “As the Prime Minister said, we all are one.”

Shuaib Chota and his son Ghaarith also flew down from Auckland.

“For us it’s just a great honour to be here today,” Shuaib Chota says. “After a week, it’s the time of healing. It’s also giving support and love and to show our compassion, to all those that have been involved and affected by this tragic event,” Shuaib Chota says.

Ghaarith Chota and father Shuaib, of Auckland, travelled to Christchurch for the national call to prayer in Hagley Park. Photo: David Williams

A tearful Scottish couple, who were holidaying in Christchurch, wanted to pay their respects, but were careful not to be gawkers. “I don’t know if we’ll stay for the service,” they said beforehand.

Soni Makaafi, a Christchurch resident of 17 years who is originally from Tonga, says he wanted to stand with the community and “show love to these people”. “I’m a Christian and I still show them that I do love them and what happened to them is not on.”

Johanna Geertsema, originally of South Africa, has lived in Christchurch for 20 years. She was there, clutching a bouquet of flowers, out of respect.

“I think we should show respect to all cultures and all religions,” she says. “We come from a country where this is not unusual. So it was a shock that it could happen in Christchurch but, it’s not that unusual. We got used to it.”

“We have shown that New Zealand is unbreakable and that the world can see in us an example of love and unity.” – Imam Gamal Fouda

The crowd was multi-cultural, and multi-faith. A show of faith for the Muslim community and for each other, and a rejection of the culture of hatred.

Traditional Muslim dress mixed with All Blacks jerseys and other sport-related paraphernalia. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s respectful, and much appreciated, gesture of wearing a headscarf was repeated by women through the crowd.

Necessarily, rifle-carrying police wandered calmly among them. Incongruously, light blue and orange-clad events staff carried blue lollypop signs encouraging gatherers to “ask me”.

Before Ardern spoke, a caucasian woman wearing a black floral headscarf, turned and surveyed the seated crowd, behind the area reserved for families and Muslim worshippers.

Her eyes widened. “It’s huge,” she told her friends.

Ardern quoted the Prophet Muhammad, who said the believers are just like one body – when any part of the body suffers, the whole body feels pain. “New Zealand mourns with you, we are one.”

(Shuaib Chota, from Auckland, said before the service that the Muslim community was impressed with Ardern’s leadership. “Her words of empathy and comfort and compassion have really resonated with the Muslim community and we feel that New Zealand has truly now become our home.”)

‘Blood waters the seeds of hope’

The call to prayer was followed by two minutes of silence, observed across the country. At Hagley Park, as the crowd quieted, strong winds buffeted the trees, magpies squawked, and the police helicopter hovered.

Tears fell. And, for some, they kept falling, as Imam Fouda told how, standing in the Al Noor mosque last Friday, he saw “hatred and rage in the eyes of the terrorist, who killed and martyred 50 innocent people”. Forty-two people were killed at Al Noor, seven at the Linwood mosque, and one person died in hospital.

“Today, from the same place, I look out and I see the love and compassion in the eyes of thousands of fellow New Zealanders and human beings from across the globe.”

The terrorist sought to tear the nation apart with an evil ideology, of white supremacy, the imam said. But, instead, Fouda said, shaking his fist, “we have shown that New Zealand is unbreakable and that the world can see in us an example of love and unity”.

“We are alive. We are together. We are determined to not let anyone divide us.”

To the victims’ families, he said their loved ones didn’t die in vain. “Their blood has watered the seeds of hope. Through them the world will see the beauty of Islam, and the beauty of our unity.”

Grim reality

Messages of hope and unity could not wipe away the grim reality of the heinous shooting.

The last message from the podium at Hagley Park: “The mass burial will start at 4pm at the cemetery.”

As the crowd disperses, an out-of-town policeman asks for directions back to the hospital. His work, also, isn’t done.

“It’s an honour to be here,” he says, his eyes filling with tears. “Someone’s been cutting onions again.”

Before the service, I asked Shuaib Chota, of Auckland, about the future. What happens after today? His response is worth quoting in full.

“From today we’ve got to look at what the true meaning of life is, and how we embrace that, not only as a Muslim community but how we embrace it as a society. The events [of support and solidarity] that took place in New Zealand, hopefully that will spread to other countries. And also for them to learn from our experiences, so we can share globally how we deal with these tragedies, in a manner of love, compassion and how we embrace all the communities, whether they are Muslim or non-Muslim.”

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