CHRISTCHURCH: New Zealanders on Friday marked one week since a mass shooting killed 50 Muslim worshippers in the South Island city of Christchurch, holding nationwide prayers and wearing headscarves to show their support for the devastated community.
People have started congregating at Hagley Park, across the road from Al Noor mosque, where 42 people were killed last week in one of two shootings at mosques on March 15. At least seven others at the nearby Linwood mosque after a white supremacist gunned them down.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern will lead thousands of mourners at the park.
The prime minister is expected to be accompanied in the Christchurch prayers with community leaders and other foreign dignitaries.
Thousands more were planning to listen in on the radio or watch on television as the event was broadcast live.
The adhan, or Muslim call to prayer, will be broadcast on all major New Zealand networks at 1:30 p.m. (NZ time), followed by a two-minute nationwide silence.
Fahim Imam, 33, of Auckland, flew in Friday morning from New Zealand’s largest city for the service. He was born and grew up in Christchurch but moved away three years ago.
“It’s just amazing to see how the country and the community have come together — blows my mind, actually,” Imam said before the event.
“As soon as I got off the plane, I saw a sign someone was holding that said ‘jenaza,’ denoting Muslim funeral prayer. Others were offering free rides to and from the prayer service,” Imam said.
“The moment I landed in Christchurch, I could feel the love here. I’ve never felt more proud to be a Muslim, or a Kiwi for that matter. It makes me really happy to be able to say that I’m a New Zealander,” he added.
He called it surreal to see the mosque where he used to pray surrounded by flowers.
Most victims of New Zealand’s worst mass shooting were migrants or refugees from countries such as Pakistan, India, Malaysia, Indonesia, Turkey, Somalia, Afghanistan and Bangladesh.
Muslims account for just over one percent of New Zealand’s population, most of whom were born overseas.
High-powered guns banned
The observance comes the day after the government announced a ban on “military-style” semi-automatic firearms and high-capacity magazines like the weapons that were used in last Friday’s attacks.
There are nearly 250,000 licensed gun owners in New Zealand, which has a population of 5 million. Officials estimate there are 1.5 million guns in the country.
Ardern said people could hand over their prohibited guns under an amnesty while officials develop a formal buyback scheme, which could cost up to 200 million New Zealand dollars ($140 million).
The government said the police and military would be exempt. Access for international shooting competitions would also be considered.
The #headscarfforharmony movement, launched by an Auckland doctor, encouraged people to wear headscarves on Friday to show their support for the Muslim community.
Robyn Molony, 65, was with a group of friend wearing headscarves at Hagley Park, where they walked daily.
“We are wearing headscarves showing our support, love and solidarity, and hope that by everybody doing this it will demonstrate to Muslim women … that they are one with us,” she said.
Images of a grieving Ardern wearing a black headscarf as she visited families of the victims a day after the attacks were broadcast around the world.
Some women in the capital Wellington were also seen wearing headscarves on their morning commute.
Armed police have been guarding mosques around New Zealand since the attacks and police said there would be a “heightened presence” on Friday to reassure those attending weekly prayers.
Officers dotted around Christchurch wore green ribbons pinned to their chests as a sign of peace and solidarity. Australian Brenton Tarrant, 28, a suspected white supremacist who was living in Dunedin, on New Zealand’s South Island, has been charged with murder following the attack.
He was remanded without a plea and is due back in court on April 5, when police said he was likely to face more charges.
Newspapers across the country ran full-page memorials with the names of the victims, and a call for national mourning.
“A call to prayer…in unity there is strength,” New Zealand Herald said on its front page.
Candlelight vigils continued until late on Thursday across the country, while volunteers prepared the bodies of the deceased for a mass burial that expected after the prayers.
“All the bodies are washed. We finished around 1.30 a.m. this morning. It was our duty. After we finished there was a lot of emotion, people were crying and hugging,” said a body washer in Christchurch who gave his name as Missouri.
Gunman ‘faces isolation’ due to prison dangers
The white supremacist accused of the Christchurch killings will spend the rest of his life in jail if convicted, likely in isolation for his own safety, a New Zealand criminologist and former convict said on Wednesday (March 20).
Attacks at two mosques in the southern city last Friday left 50 Muslim worshippers dead and sparked global revulsion.
“He is going to be very highly unpopular in a prison where 80 per cent (of inmates) are Maori or Pasifika (Pacific islanders) and he is a white supremacist,” said Dr Greg Newbold, a professor of criminology at Canterbury University.
“He will have no friends, not even the white guys,” added Dr Newbold, who spent five years in jail on drugs charges – half of that in maximum security – before turning his life around.
New Zealand has no death penalty and alleged shooter Brenton Tarrant, 28, is expected to face a record prison sentence if found guilty of the massacre.
If convicted, he could be sentenced to life imprisonment without parole, criminal lawyer Simon Cullen told AFP, adding that such a sentence would be “unprecedented” for New Zealand.
Dr Newbold said it was possible that Tarrant could spend the rest of his life in “segregation” and at least the first five to 10 years in “effective” solitary confinement.
“There’s a lot (of people) in segs who would get at him as well… He would have to be in highly segregated conditions,” Dr Newbold said.
“If he’s convicted, he will be effectively in solitary for a long, long time… He will be locked up most of the time in his own cell.”
Dr Newbold said that during his jail stint, another inmate imprisoned for raping and killing a young girl “had his throat cut” in prison in 1979.
New Zealand media already have quoted members of a notorious criminal biker gang as saying “we’ve got friends inside”, suggesting they would get to Tarrant if they had the chance.
New Zealand’s only maximum-security facility is the recently upgraded Auckland Prison at Paremoremo, 25 minutes north of Auckland, where the 9 sq m concrete block cells have a bed, toilet and shower all visible to staff via cameras.
Tarrant is said to be under 24-hour surveillance with no access to newspapers, television or other media.
Prison authorities would likely arrange a special regime combining regular exercise with seclusion, for safety reasons.
The authorities say Tarrant is being held in a “specialist security facility” outside of Christchurch until his next court appearance on April 5.
(With Reuters and AP)
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