New Zealand's Ardern leads Christchurch shooting memorials amid coronavirus scare

CHRISTCHURCH (Reuters) - New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said on Friday the country has “fundamentally changed” since last year’s Christchurch shootings, as the coronavirus pandemic loomed over a planned weekend memorial.

Ardern said the Sunday event to mark the anniversary of the attack on two mosques that killed 51 people was still scheduled to go ahead, but acknowledged that could change quickly if the coronavirus situation worsened.

New Zealand has reported five cases of the virus, none due to local transmission, but Ardern said she will likely announce new border restrictions next week.

New Zealand Finance Minister Grant Robertson canceled a trip to Canberra on Friday to meet with his Australian counterpart, opting to talk over Skype instead.

In an emotional media conference in Christchurch, Ardern said engagement with the Muslim community had grown since the massacre at the Al Noor and Linwood mosques a year ago, but the country needs to continue calling out racism and challenging the growing threat from far-right groups.

“A year on, I believe in New Zealand people have fundamentally changed,” Ardern said in the South Island’s largest city. “The challenge for us would be ensuring that in our every day action, and at every opportunity when we see bullying, harassment, racism and discrimination, we call it out as a nation.”

Brenton Tarrant, an Australian national, faces 92 charges in relation to the attacks. He has pleaded not guilty and faces trial in June.

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Hundreds of people gathered at the two mosques and at a closed prayer service at a community center on Friday.

Aya al-Umari, whose brother Hussein, 35, died in the attack looked at flowers and message of support outside the Al Noor mosque, but could not bring herself to go inside.

“We live it day in and day out,” she told Reuters of the pain of losing her sibling.

Ardern was praised globally for her response to the mass shooting, after she outlawed weapons used in the attack within weeks and launched a global campaign for government and tech companies to combat online hate.

Ardern said more than 60,000 prohibited firearms were handed in under a gun amnesty. However, her plans to further tighten gun laws, including the creation of a registry, stalled this week due to resistance from opposition parties and gun lobbies.

Officials have stepped up security for the memorial events, which are expected to be attended by thousands, after a new threat was reported last week against the Al Noor mosque.

Reporting by Praveen Menon; editing by Jane Wardell