New Zealand Muslims Await Word From Mosque Attacks: ‘Everybody Knew Each Other’

Waiting outside a hospital in Christchurch, New Zealand, on Friday after attacks on two mosques in the city left dozens of people dead or wounded.CreditCreditTessa Burrows/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

WELLINGTON, New Zealand — Muslims across New Zealand — members of a small, closely knit community of about 50,000 — were struggling to find out on Friday whether their loved ones were among the victims of an attack on two mosques in the city of Christchurch.

“Nobody’s answering their phones,” said Nasreen Hanif, a spokeswoman for the Islamic Women’s Council of New Zealand, which is based in Auckland, an 85-minute flight from Christchurch. “We don’t know if they’re at the hospital or out of reach. Some have posted that they are safe, but others have not.”

She said one set of parents was waiting to hear from their son, who had not been seen.

“They were supposed to have lunch with him after prayers,” she said. It was during Friday Prayers that the two mosques were attacked by at least one gunman. The names of victims have not been released.

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Late Friday, bodies remained in the two mosques, behind a police cordon, and dozens of people were being treated at Christchurch Hospital.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern branded the killings a “well planned” terrorist attack.

The Palestine Liberation Organization’s ambassador to Australia and New Zealand, Izzat Abdulhadi, said in a statement that at least one Palestinian was killed and several others were injured in the attacks.

And Syrian Solidarity New Zealand, a group that describes itself as a non-governmental organization of Syrians and their supporters in the country, said in a statement on its Facebook page that “Syrian refugees, including children, have been shot today.”

An official from the group, Ali Akil, told a local news outlet, Newshub, that a father was among those killed, and one family had a child missing and another in serious condition in the hospital.

“They escaped death and torture in Syria, to come to New Zealand, and be killed here,” Mr. Akil told Newshub.

People were searching frantically for word of their friends and relatives. A site managed by the International Committee of the Red Cross listed dozens of people who had been recorded as missing, including people from Egypt, Syria, India, Kuwait, Palestine, Jordan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Somalia.

The Pakistan Association of New Zealand circulated on its Facebook page a health form to be used by people looking for loved ones, asking for details like eye color and any distinguishing birth marks or scars. The group listed six members of the Pakistani community it said were missing, beseeching people to get in contact if they knew of the missing people’s whereabouts.

For Muslims in New Zealand and abroad, the massacre drew both sadness and outrage — it was a crime and a tragedy, but also, in the eyes of many, a brazen act of hatred borne from years of anti-Muslim sentiment.

Officials in several Muslim-majority countries — including Indonesia, Malaysia and Pakistan — condemned the attacks as a byproduct of racist and religious prejudice.

A mosque in Auckland. The attacks in Christchurch have drawn a tightly knit community even closer together.Phil Walter/Getty Images

The Indonesian foreign minister, Retno Marsudi, emphasized the horror of the shootings occurring during Friday Prayer.

A spokesman for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey called the attacks “racist and fascist.”

“This cowardly act shows how anti-Muslim rhetoric and hatred leads to murderous acts,” the spokesman, Ibrahim Kalin, wrote on Twitter. “The world must break its silence over Islamophobic hatred.”

Muslim leaders across New Zealand, however, stressed that the attacks were out of character for the country, a place many of them associated with peace.

“Muslims have been in New Zealand for a long time, and Muslims have never had any issues in New Zealand,” said Ibrar Sheikh, the secretary of a mosque in Auckland, Al Mustafa Jamia Masjid. “Just because one or two individuals have taken this stand, it doesn’t mean there is an attack on people living in New Zealand.”

He said that the deaths would affect Muslims across the country. “Everybody knew each other,” he said, adding that he had been unable to contact friends who had worshiped at the Christchurch mosques on Friday.

The two mosques attacked in Christchurch were, like most mosques in New Zealand, “a United Nations” of ethnicities, Mr. Sheikh said, rather than hosting worshipers from any particular ethnic group.

The first Muslims to arrive in New Zealand, an British-Indian family, landed in Christchurch in 1854. Larger-scale Muslim immigration began in the 1970s, with the arrival of families and students from the Pacific islands. The region of Canterbury, which includes Christchurch, has been an area of steady growth.

According to Abdullah Drury, a scholar who completed a history of Muslim migration in New Zealand two years ago, the Muslim population in Canterbury reached a point in 1977 where a formal association could be registered and organized. The group set up the first Muslim place of prayer on New Zealand’s South Island in Christchurch three years later.

Muslim migration accelerated in the 1990s and 2000s with immigration from war-torn countries like Iraq and Afghanistan. The 2013 census counted a national population of more than 4.2 million people, including more than 46,000 people who identified as Muslim, up nearly 30 percent from 2006.

Research shows that the majority of Muslims in New Zealand are Sunni, with a large Shia minority and some Ahmadi Muslims.

Now, Ms. Hanif said, a close community must become even closer: Both mosques that were attacked on Friday had already reached out to ask for help with funeral arrangements.

Ms. Ardern, the prime minister, noted that many of the victims were immigrants.

“For many this may not have been the place they were born,” she said. “For many, New Zealand was their choice, the place that they chose to come to and committed themselves to, the place they chose to raise their families.”

Ms. Ardern added that New Zealand had not been a target because it was a safe harbor for hatred, racism or extremism.

“We were chosen for the very fact that we are none of these things,” she said. “Because we represent diversity, kindness, compassion, a home for those who share our values, refuge for those who need it. Those values will not and cannot be shaken by this attack.”

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