Terror in Chch

Six months on, aroha at Linwood

In the wake of the Christchurch terror attack, there are signs of healing, support and, of course, ongoing struggle. David Williams reports.

As Muslim worshippers gather for Friday prayers at Christchurch’s Linwood Islamic Centre, there is a small sign – well, three of them – that the city’s non-Muslim community still care.

On the footpath beside the long gravel driveway, three people hold handwritten signs. The one held by Caroline Syddall, of nearby Mount Pleasant, reads: “Me ngā whakaaro inoi aroha atu – With loving thoughts and prayers.”

Syddall is there with partner Jocelyn Papprill and Fraser Mackie, a former Christchurch resident now living in Melbourne. She says: “It’s the closest Friday to six months on and I just wanted the Muslim community to know that we are remembering – that it’s not just an event in the past.”

Despite the women not having head coverings, the trio’s gesture is rewarded by being welcomed onto a couch in the mosque’s main room, where only men normally pray.

Imam Abdul Lateef delivers his khutbah at Linwood Islamic Centre on Friday. Photo: David Williams

Men arrive at the mosque in dribs and drabs. Some wear Middle Eastern garb, including the keffiyeh headdress. Most dress in Western clothes, including a flash of tradie high-vis yellow. Baseball hats mingle with the Afghan pakol. Many parts of the world are represented, including Māori and pākehā.

From the open bathroom door, the sound of wudu, or ablutions, can be heard. There are smiles, handshakes, hugs. Greetings of “Asalamu Aleykum” and “Hello, brother”. Small-talk extends to the weakness of the Fijian rugby team, and how best to park cars outside, to get the most in.

It’s clearly a place of faith and love, but also pain and loss. Seven Linwood worshippers were shot dead on March 15 by a gun-wielding terrorist, and about the same number were injured. In all 51 people were killed, most of them at the Al Noor mosque, next to the central city’s Hagley Park. An Australian man has been charged over the attack and faces a trial in June next year.

Māori Muslim Tyrone Smith, who converted 14 years ago, worships at Linwood and Al Noor. On Friday, at Linwood, he’s on security – watching camera footage of the mosque’s surrounds on a screen while everyone else listens to Imam Abdul Lateef’s sermon, or khutbah. Contact numbers for police – one of whom called in before the afternoon prayer – are kept nearby.

Such systems have now been installed at all New Zealand mosques, Smith says. “We trust the process – if our day comes, our day comes. But we’ve still got to take preventative measures, and this is one of the preventative measures we take.”

Imam Lateef, who wrenched his right knee running in the mosque on March 15, says: “Because it happened on a Friday, it takes you back straight-away to that day.”

Prayers at Linwood Islamic Centre, almost six months after the terrorist attack. Photo: David Williams

The call to prayer, the Jumu’ah, is performed by Abdul Aziz, who’s known around the world for his ‘eftpos machine’ heroism. A small stepped platform, a minbar, is dragged into place, on which the Imam delivers his khutbah in a mixture of Arabic and English.

The mosque fills during the khutbah, the squeak of the opening door followed by the thud of its closure.

On this day, 25 weeks after the March attack, Lateef’s theme is success. While it’s important to people to try and be successful in this life, it’s most important to be successful in the next life, he says. “It is the best and the greatest thing possibly you can ever think of.

"The Prophet (peace be upon him) instructs worshippers to do “the good thing; the right thing”. Lateef reels off a list: “Fear Allah, pray at the right time, fast as it’s supposed to be done, care about your mother, care about your father, care about your children, be merciful to your wife, love your neighbours, respect old people, be kind to the children, to the minors.”

Lateef uses several metaphors to illustrate his points. One, referring to good deeds, is you can’t expect watermelons to grow if you plant apple seeds. In another story, about sin, Lateef talks of using fried chicken on traps to attract rats. “Sometimes things will look rough,” he says, “but if you’re steadfast then good will come to you.”

The lessons distill to three things: be grateful; expect to be continuously tested; and ask for forgiveness. Another theme is blessing New Zealand. Lateef clarifies afterwards that Muslims should pray for the whole world, but especially where they live – their watan, or base.

“May God protect each and every one of us – Muslim, non-Muslim, Christian, Jews. It’s our country now. We are here. Even if you don’t have citizenship.

“My brother, you are here in this country. You’re under its sky, you are breathing its air, you are eating its food, drinking its water. It’s your country.”

Imam Lateef talks of success. Photo: David Williams

The Imam’s notion of belonging isn’t always shared by immigration authorities.

Sure, the Government has taken many measures after the attack, including, on Friday, earmarking more money for Canterbury mental health services. Earlier a special permanent resident visa category was created for the terror attack victims and their immediate families, and financial and mental welfare support was offered – although not via ACC.

Lateef says the biggest problem facing members of his mosque right now is single men who want to bring their families to New Zealand. “What you share with your wife is not what you share with your friends.” (Radio NZ reported the story of Linwood mosque-goer Ahmen Jahnagir, whose brother was recently declined permanent residency.)

Smith, the Māori convert, says issues with visas are complex. He says some people who were cleared to come to New Zealand were facing fines in their home country, which might have tripled in their absence.

Physical problems persist. Lateef says one of their number will have their hand operated on later this month. Its chairman, meanwhile, hasn’t had the use of his right hand because of shoulder problems.

And the emotional issues? “The emotion is still there but it is gradually reducing,” Lateef says. He’s encouraging mosque-goers to try and move on. “We’re trying to let them know that life has its ups and downs. The down has come and then you just have to leave that and start going up.”

Aziz, who has eight children, the eldest of whom is 25, says: “The wound is still fresh but we try our best to move on. It’s not easy.” Smith says the female members of the mosque, especially those who lost their partners, are dealing with more deep-seated emotional issues.

There have been healing moments, like a Hajj trip for 200 people to Saudi Arabia paid for by King Salman. Smith says one Muslim brother who was at Masjid Al-Noor on March 15 left for Australia soon after the attacks to get away from the memories. After the annual pilgrimage, Smith says: “You see him now and it’s like he’s just blossoming. He’s really in a good state of mind.”

While giving thanks to God, Lateef says the trauma is not like it used to be. “You wouldn’t see this many people today if they’re still thinking about what happened.”

Tributes and notes of support and solidarity from around the world are displayed at 'Tributes of Aroha' at Christchurch Art Gallery. Photo: Getty Images

Not all has healed, including divisions between the two affected mosques.

Lateef says the latest newsletter of the Wellington-based Federation of Islamic Associations of New Zealand, or FIANZ – the umbrella group for seven associations, including the Al Noor-based Muslim Association of Canterbury – contained a story about the Christchurch tragedy but didn’t mention Linwood.

His mosque has also been shut out of meetings, including with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, Lateef claims. “We need to be carried along, whatever is happening.”e

Aziz complains only about 20 people from Linwood mosque went on the all-expenses-paid trip to the Hajj, while dozens came from other parts of the country. “This Hajj was for the victims.”

Questions have been raised about whether the Royal Commission into the attacks is as inclusive and transparent as it should have been.

Lateef is sure the commission is doing its best. But he says he was meant to be on the 35-strong Muslim Community Reference Group. “I don’t know why they didn’t invite me.” (Smith is listed as one of the group members.)

Poems and speeches are read at Christchurch's Art Gallery on Friday. Photo: Getty Images

Has New Zealand changed since March 15? Lateef says yes.

He mentions the people standing on the footpath outside the mosque that afternoon. “You are not forgotten. The love came flowing in.” Sometimes he’s approached in the shopping mall by people who hold his hand and cry. “If people around you can feel that much pain for you, it’s a blessing from God, so we just have to take it.”

Sure, “evil people” won’t have changed, Lateef says. However, he guarantees they will be “burning in their heart” because of what happened after the attacks.

“Many people were killed. What happens after that? Love from all over the world. From New Zealanders. And our mosque got fixed. And help, even financially – we got financial help from all over the world. From the Government. The Government agencies stood by us.

“So it has changed a lot. And I believe more will come when it comes to understanding the Muslim faith.”

The Imam reaches for another story, this time about a plumber who worked at the mosque just after “the incident”. As Lateef tells it, the tradie told him he’d kept a gun “to protect myself, not to kill anyone”. That was because “what we heard is you guys, you all have AK47s at home; under your clothes”.

But when 51 people were killed – “with not even a pin, a needle, to defend themselves” – the plumber felt bad. He felt fooled by what people had said in the media. So, Lateef says, he gave up his gun – selling it back to the shop he’d bought it, before the national buyback was announced.

“So it has changed,” Lateef says of the country. “I believe so.”

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