Christchurch, New Zealand – Christchurch’s Al Noor mosque has reopened its doors, eight days after they were shuttered in the wake of the killing of 50 Muslims in the worst mass shootings in New Zealand’s modern history.
Officials at Al Noor, where more than 40 people were shot dead during the attack on March 15, started allowing small groups of people back into the complex to pray and pay their respects shortly after midday on Saturday.
Armed police stood guard at the gates of the complex, which were lined with flowers and messages of condolence, and by the mosque itself as returning worshippers and new visitors entered slowly, side-by-side.
Inside, amid the potent smell of newly-painted walls, visitors passed through an uncarpeted hallway as they headed to the prayer room, where the dull sobs of kneeling worshippers punctuated an otherwise pristine silence.
Linwood mosque, some 7km away, however, remains closed in the wake of the attack, allegedly carried out by 28-year-old Australian-born Brenton Tarrant.
Police have handed the complex back to the Muslim community, however, and shrunk security cordons around the site and at Al Noor. An armed security presence remains in force at both locations and at mosques around New Zealand.
White supremacist suspect
Among the scores of attendees at Al Noor on Saturday lunchtime was Fatima (not her real name), who said she travelled to Christchurch from Auckland to visit the mosque.
“Something is pulling me, without entering in the mosque and praying I can’t leave. It’s coming from my heart,” Fatima told Al Jazeera. She said she would ask for “forgiveness” over last Friday’s massacre.
“Our religion teaches us that all mankind should live under one umbrella in peace and unity, but we were unable to deliver that message to people in practice,” Fatima said.
“We are sorry for that, and that 50 people had to sacrifice their lives to deliver that message,” she added.
Suspected attacker Tarrant, a self-identified white supremacist who was living in Dunedin, on New Zealand’s South Island, has been charged with one murder following the mosque attacks.
However, police said in a statement last week that the person formally accused of killing had been wrongly declared dead, adding Tarrant’s charge sheet would be updated when he next appeared in court on April 5.
Tarrant, who was remanded without a plea in his initial court appearance a week ago, is expected to face more charges then.
In the wake of his alleged attack, carried out using sophisticated weapons, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has moved to ban semiautomatic firearms and assault rifles.
Ardern has also launched an inquiry into the country’s intelligence services, who critics argue should have identified Tarrant as a threat prior to the massacre.
In the minutes before his alleged attack, Tarrant published a hate-filled online manifesto which called for “violence” against non-whites and immigrants. Ardern called it a “terrorist” incident.
‘New Zealand is a land of peace’
Amr Soliman, another visitor to Al Noor from Auckland, said Tarrant had “failed” to sow division in New Zealand society.
“He achieved the reverse, when he shot these people he united us, all of us, all the nation,” Soliman told Al Jazeera shortly after praying in the mosque.
“This attack is unforgettable but I feel satisfaction, because I see that these flowers, candles and tears are from the people who are not Muslim … I thought that they loved us, but now I know for sure,” he added.
“New Zealand is a land of peace, it was and it is and it will be, forever.”
On Friday, Ardern led the country in observing two minutes of silence, ushered in by the Muslim call to prayer, at a Friday prayers service held just metres away from Al Noor mosque.
The ceremony was attended by an estimated 20,000 people, including 5,000 Muslims, the equivalent of a 10th of the country’s total Muslim population.
Vigils and other public acts of mourning also took place elsewhere across the Pacific nation on Friday, which has undergone a national outpouring of grief unlike anything in its modern history since last week.
Hours after the ceremony in Christchurch, relatives of the victims of the attack laid 26 of their loved ones to rest in a mass burial at the city’s New Park Cemetery.