by Tom Flanagan
On the afternoon of March 15, when the worshippers of Al Noor Mosque knelt for Friday Prayer, none could have imagined the massacre that ensued. Of course, they had little reason for concern: mass shootings seemed a distant memory to most New Zealanders. More than 20 years had passed since a man murdered six and wounded four in the town of Raurimu, marking the last major incident of gun violence in New Zealand. For over two decades, the island country appeared immune to the terror attacks sweeping the world. That Friday, however; their sense of security ended. Today, as grief grips the world over, the Catholic Church’s response will show the measure of their fellowship with the Muslim faith.
According to reports, the massacre was brief: between the first shot and the last, no more than half an hour went by. The gunman, an Australian white supremacist, began his rampage at Al Noor Mosque. His first victim was Daud Nabi, a man who moments before had greeted him with the words, “Hello, brother.” In the next six minutes, the killer slaughtered 41 more. Some were gunned down as they fled; another, Naeem Rahim, was killed as he rushed to tackle the shooter.
Leaving Al Noor, the gunman headed toward his next target: Linwood Islamic Center. At first unable to find the door, the shooter unleashed a spray of bullets through a window. Seven more were killed. If not for one man’s courage, the carnage would likely have continued. Launching a credit card machine at the assailant, Abdul Aziz Wahabzadah proceeded to chase the gunman back to his vehicle, causing him to drop his weapon. Abdul Aziz then hurled the shotgun at the car, shattering the windshield as the gunman escaped. A few minutes later, the shooter was apprehended, and the spree was over.
While the attack was unprecedented in scale, some believe the writing was already on the wall. According to Dr. Paul Spoonley, a professor at Massey University, New Zealand has witnessed a marked rise in racism, Islamophobia, and xenophobia in recent years. Though Muslims remain a slim minority on the island nation, anti-Islamic sentiment has steadily increased with the arrival of Muslim immigrants and refugees. The shooter’s manifesto reveals other radical influences: alt-right extremism, white nationalism, and neo-Nazism. In the text, the shooter applauds the crimes of the white supremacist who perpetrated the Charleston, South Carolina church shooting in 2015. That man killed nine; the Christchurch gunman, 50.
On the heels of the massacre, Catholic leaders around the globe were quick to condemn this act of evil. In a joint statement, the bishops of New Zealand pledged their “solidarity with [the Muslim community] in the face of such violence.” The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops echoed these words of support, urging their audience to “not remain complacent or desensitized to the horror of these tragedies.”
As vigils gathered, some prayed for the victims. Some prayed for the families, and some prayed for peace. Still others prayed for the shooter and the other cruel souls that are equally misguided.
On March 17, Auckland’s Sacred Heart Church opened its doors to Catholics and Muslims alike to mourn and to heal. To the tune of the church organ, the crowd lay down their bouquets in remembrance of the fallen. A note tucked into the flowers captured the spirit moving within the congregation: “Where there is love, there is hope. Aroha nui, your neighbors.”
Photo Courtesy of Government House, New Zealand via Wikimedia Commons