March 21, 2019 / 6:39 AM / a month ago

Special Report - Shattered sanctuary: In Christchurch, an imam seeks to rebuild

CHRISTCHURCH (Reuters) - Ibrahim Abdelhalim was at his mosque last week in the Linwood neighborhood of Christchurch, New Zealand, delivering a prayer as he usually does on Friday afternoons. The 67-year-old grandfather had already spoken about “tasting the sweetness of faith” as a Muslim obedient to God and willing to serve humanity.

FILE PHOTO: Imam Ibrahim Abdelhalim of the Linwood Mosque holds hands with Father Felimoun El-Baramoussy from the Dunedin Coptic Church, as they walk at the site of Friday's shooting outside the Mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand March 18, 2019. REUTERS/Edgar Su/File Photo

He heard a pop-pop-pop in the distance.

The sounds got louder. Abdelhalim realized they were gunshots, but he continued. Abruptly ending the holy words mid-sentence would show a lack of respect in the face of God, he thought.

Abdelhalim immigrated from Egypt to Christchurch in 1995. The small city in a far-away island nation, some 16,000 kilometers from the poverty and corruption of Cairo, gave his family a better life. It sits in a tableau of pristine mountains and rolling fields, a place where he often forgot to lock his front door at night. Whatever was happening outside would probably be okay. Still, there were more than 80 people in the room in front of him and so, he said, “I tried to finish the prayer quickly.”

Then the bullets came crashing through the window of the mosque. They sprayed into bodies. People screamed, diving atop each other in jumbled piles. Abdelhalim saw his son but could not make it to where he lay. Further back, at the partition for women, Abdelhalim’s wife was also pinned down by gunfire, shot in the arm. Bullets thudded into a friend next to her, killing the woman. In the land that had become his sanctuary, Abdelhalim suddenly feared he was about to watch his family be slaughtered.

Police later named Brenton Tarrant, a 28-year-old Australian, as the alleged shooter in the massacre last Friday, which claimed 50 lives and left as many wounded.

Tarrant posted online a screed espousing white supremacist ideology and hatred of immigrants, authorities say. So far charged with one murder, Tarrant was remanded to custody without a plea Saturday, and is due back in court next month, when police say he is likely to face more charges.

The country’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, described a very different New Zealand in an address after the carnage. “We represent diversity, kindness, compassion,” she said, her voice at times cracking with emotion. “A home for those who share our values. Refuge for those who need it.”

Many victims in Christchurch had sought just that – leaving Somalia, Pakistan, Syria or Afghanistan for a better life, often with little in their pockets. Abdelhalim spoke of the city as a dream made real.

In Cairo, Abdelhalim said, he’d worked as a judge specializing in inheritance and tenancy cases. He lived in a well-heeled suburb, his parents a teacher and a government employee, his brother an officer in the Egyptian military. But he did not see the future he wanted for his three children in Egypt. Cairo had witnessed a president being assassinated by Islamic militants in 1981, and a string of bombs exploding in and around the city in 1993.

So the family moved to Christchurch, and Abdelhalim took the only job he could find, as a clerk at Work and Income, the government agency for employment services and financial assistance. “I tried to study law, but found it was very hard to begin again,” he said.

Nevertheless, his children were going to good schools and his family moved into a small brick home, where he still lives, with roses in the well-trimmed yard. A neighbor invited him over for tea, he said, “nearly every day.” The family got to know the woman at the post office, a local shopkeeper and just about everyone else.

Far from the chaos of Cairo, Christchurch is a place where men in straw hats and vests take tourists down the placid waters of the Avon River. It is a city of parks with birds chirping and a streetcar clanking past Cathedral Square.

Abdelhalim’s life grew along with the city. He opened a restaurant, named for his old home, Cairo. He became active in the Muslim community, working as the imam at a mosque called Al Noor.

When terrorists flew planes into the World Trade Center in New York in September 2001, Abdelhalim was the head of a local Islamic association. At the time, he said, there was a flare up of young people yelling at Muslims and trying to grab women’s headscarves. Abdelhalim responded by organizing community events at the mosque. In 2017, he took part in opening a multi-faith prayer space at the airport. “My only weapon,” he said, “is my tongue.”

He also helped start and agreed to be the imam, the religious leader, of the Linwood mosque as its doors opened early last year, though it was across the city from his house. The building, a former community center, sits amid signs for the Salvation Army, a pawnshop, the Super Liquor and the Value Mart. Its presence was a marker of growth in the city’s still-small Muslim community.

It was at another mosque, Al Noor, that the gunman first began shooting. He shot at men, women and children as he emptied one clip of ammunition and then the next, circling back to shoot once more just to be sure he’d killed as many Muslims as possible. He took more than 40 lives there. The gunman then got into his car and drove to Linwood, where Abdelhalim, a man with a carefully cut white beard, was beginning to pray.

In the back of the mosque, a 27-year-old man from Afghanistan named Ahmed Khan peeked out a window. The plump-faced Khan and his family had arrived in Christchurch 12 years earlier, leaving behind a nation torn by war.

“Someone called ‘help!’ and when I looked out the window, somebody was laying down, bleeding,” he said. Khan’s eyes flitted across the driveway and spotted a strange figure – a man wearing a helmet, standing in broad daylight with a rifle in his hands.

The man squeezed the trigger, Khan said, and a bullet flew through the window. Khan recalls calling out, “There’s someone with a gun!”

In the prayer area, where Abdelhalim had stood reciting holy words just moments before, people flung themselves on the ground in panic. Khan recalls cradling a man in his arms one moment and then, the next, the gunman “shot him when I was holding him, in the head. And he was dead.”

There was another Afghan in the room who rushed toward the door. In the gunfire that followed, seven people were killed. Khan said the toll almost certainly would have been higher if this second Afghan - Abdul Aziz, a short, muscular man who runs a furniture shop - hadn’t confronted the shooter.

Aziz grabbed a credit card machine and hurled it at the gunman, dodging bullets. He later chased the gunman with an unloaded shotgun that the shooter dropped as he went back for another weapon, then hurled it like a spear through his car window. With four of his children in the mosque, Aziz later said, he acted to protect his own piece of adopted homeland. “I didn’t know where my own kids were – if they are alive, if they are dead,” he said.

They’d survived, with one of his sons laid over a younger brother, protecting the smaller boy’s body with his own. Abdelhalim’s wife and son also made it out alive.

Now, in the aftermath of 50 dead in his city, Abdelhalim is trying to keep his family and his people together. They are left to navigate an issue that has confronted communities around the world after mass shootings: How, in the midst of suffering and rage, does normalcy and the peace they once knew return, if at all?

On Saturday afternoon, about 24 hours after the massacre, Abdelhalim walked out of a crisis response center in Christchurch. On the wall, there was a Wi-Fi login and password written on a piece of white paper: youarewelcome. A group of motorcycle club members had parked their bikes on the grass in a show of support. Burly men in black leather jackets milled about. A young man with the club’s name tattooed across the side of his face – “Tribesmen” – chatted with reporters. Police stood by with assault rifles.

Abdelhalim made his way carefully through the crowd in a dark suit with light pinstripes. Everyone was asking, he said, “can the peace of Christchurch come back?”

The gunman’s manifesto, released shortly before the attacks, said he was motivated to fight back against the “invasion” of immigration by non-whites. The actual number of Muslims in New Zealand is small - about one percent of the populace. At the 2013 census, the most recent figures available, the government reported a 28 percent rise in Muslims since 2006, along with jumps in Hindu and Sikh numbers.

Slideshow (3 Images)

On Sunday morning, Abdelhalim opened his front door at 9, wearing board shorts, flipflops and a worn collared shirt, instead of the suits he favors in public. He was exhausted. City authorities released a list of the dead past midnight at the Christchurch Hospital. Abdelhalim was there to speak with the bereaved. He’d gotten home from the hospital at some time after 2 a.m. and had barely slept.

The next day, standing on the other side of police tape from the mosque in Linwood, Abdelhalim was asked by a reporter for details of the shooting. Abdelhalim said he’d rather not say.

“I don’t need to repeat the story of what happened,” he said. “Because it breaks my heart.”

Reporting by Tom Lasseter; Editing by Philip McClellan and Peter Hirschberg

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