New Zealand PM comforts mourning Muslim community after deadly mosque shooting
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New Zealand PM comforts mourning Muslim community after deadly mosque shooting

Vigils held throughout country after worst-ever attack on Muslims in a Western country, as tales emerge of victims’ and survivors’ heroism

In this image made from video, New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, center, hugs and consoles a woman as she visited Kilbirnie Mosque to lay flowers among tributes to Christchurch attack victims, in Wellington, March 17, 2019. (TVNZ via AP)
In this image made from video, New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, center, hugs and consoles a woman as she visited Kilbirnie Mosque to lay flowers among tributes to Christchurch attack victims, in Wellington, March 17, 2019. (TVNZ via AP)

New Zealanders flocked to pay tribute Sunday to the 50 worshipers slain in two mosque attacks, with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern paying an emotional visit to the local community and relatives of the victims.

The prime minister, wearing a black headscarf, appeared visibly moved as she greeted and hugged members of the Muslim community in Wellington, and laid a floral tribute to the victims of Friday’s atrocity.

As New Zealand grappled to come to terms with the slaughter — the worst attack on Muslims in a Western country — tales of heroism, suffering and incredible grace began to emerge.

Farid Ahmad, whose 44-year-old wife Husna was killed as she rushed back into a mosque to rescue him, refused to harbor hatred toward the alleged gunman, Australian-born self-avowed white nationalist Brenton Tarrant.

“I would say to him ‘I love him as a person,'” Ahmad, who uses a wheelchair, told AFP.

Asked if he forgave the 28-year-old suspect, he said: “Of course. The best thing is forgiveness, generosity, loving and caring, positivity.”

Husna Ahmad was among four women believed to have been killed by Tarrant, who documented his radicalization and two years of preparations in a lengthy, meandering and conspiracy-filled far-right “manifesto.”

Ardern said her office and some 30 other officials had received the document by email about nine minutes before the attack.

“It did not include a location, it did not include specific details,” she said, adding that it was sent to security services within two minutes of receipt.

Around Christchurch, New Zealand and the world there have been vigils, prayers, memorials and messages of solidarity.

“We stand together with our Muslim brothers & sisters” were the words on a large red banner, above a sea of flowers at one of the sites in what one resident dubbed the “city of sorrow.”

An emotion-filled haka — the Maori war dance — was performed by a New Zealand biker gang to honor the Christchurch dead.

The country remained on high alert Sunday, with police closing an airport in the southern city of Dunedin — where Tarrant had lived — after an unidentified package was spotted on the airfield.

People gather in front of floral tributes at a makeshift memorial for victims of the March 15 mosque attacks, in Christchurch on March 17, 2019. (Photo by Tessa BURROWS / AFP)

Generations

The dead from Friday’s attack span generations, aged between three and 77, according to a somber list circulated among relatives.

Some victims came from the neighborhood, others from as far afield as Egypt or Fiji. At least two of the dead came from the same family — a father and son.

Delhi said Sunday that five of its nationals were killed in the attack, while Pakistan said nine of its citizens were among the dead.

Meanwhile, families clamored for the return of their dead. Coroners said they hoped to let grieving relatives fulfill Islamic burial customs soon, but insisted they had to move carefully through their investigation into the horrific multiple murder.

“It’s a massacre, what else do they need to know?” said school principal Sheikh Amjad Ali, expressing frustration over the wait for loved ones’ remains.

Islamic custom dictates that the dead should be buried within 24 hours, but strained authorities, desperate to make sure no mistakes are made or the complex investigation harmed, said a quick process was difficult.

“All of the deceased have had a CT scan, their fingerprints are taken, the property they were wearing or had with them is removed,” said Chief Coroner Deborah Marshall, adding that dental impressions were taken and postmortems performed.

Ardern said she expected all the dead would have been returned to their families by Wednesday.

A young girl places a note among flowers left in tribute to victims in Christchurch, on March 17, 2019, two days after a shooting incident at two mosques in the city. (Photo by Anthony WALLACE / AFP)

Four-year-old critically hurt

Authorities said 34 people remained in the hospital.

Among those fighting for their lives is four-year-old Alin Alsati. The preschooler was praying alongside her father Wasseim at the Al Noor mosque when she was shot at least three times.

Her father, who was also shot, recently emigrated to New Zealand from Jordan.

“Please pray for me and my daughter,” he pleaded in a Facebook video message from his hospital bed before undergoing surgery.

The number of dead and injured could have been higher, were it not for people like Afghan refugee Abdul Aziz.

Aziz was at the Linwood mosque with his four sons when he rushed the attacker armed with the only weapon he could find — a handheld credit card machine.

When Aziz heard one of his four sons cry “Daddy, please come back inside!” he picked up an empty shotgun discarded by the gunman and shouted “come on here” repeatedly in an effort to draw him away from his sons and the other worshipers.

“I just wanted to save as much lives as I could, even if I lose my life,” he told AFP.

People walk with flowers to pay their respects for the mosques victims in Christchurch on March 17, 2019, two days after a shooting incident at two mosques in the city. (Photo by DAVID MOIR / AFP)

Gun policy on agenda

The mosque attacks have shaken this usually peaceful country, which prides itself on welcoming refugees fleeing violence or persecution.

On Monday Ardern will gather her cabinet to discuss changing the country’s gun laws.

That could include a ban on semiautomatic weapons of the type used by Tarrant. A series of reform attempts in recent years have failed.

Ardern also wants answers from social media giants over the livestreaming of the carnage.

Facebook said it had removed 1.5 million videos of the attack around the world in the first 24 hours.

The video has been classed as “objectionable” under New Zealand law, meaning that anyone who shares it could face prosecution and jail.

Meanwhile after days of lockdowns, security warnings and fear, police have urged Kiwis to go back to their normal business.

When they return to work, school and hobbies on Monday however, they will find a high police presence, said commissioner Mike Bush.

“This is for everyone’s safety, to reassure the public.”

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