As Tala’at Al-Shuqairat left his mosque after Friday prayers in Orem, he and his fellow Muslim worshipers were met by dozens of community members bearing roses, smiles and signs with messages such as, “We love our Muslim neighbors.”
The outreach of support was healing, Al-Shuqairat said, following the shock of finding out Friday morning that at least 49 people attending those same Friday prayer services at mosques in New Zealand were shot to death. The gunman behind at least one of those shootings, according to The Associated Press, identified himself as an Australian white nationalist who was avenging attacks in Europe perpetrated by Muslims.
The shooter live-streamed the gruesome attack on worshipers at Christchurch’s Al Noor Mosque, where at least 41 people were killed. Several more were killed in an attack at a second mosque not long after. Three suspects were taken into custody after the shootings. One man has been charged with murder, according to AP.
Only a few hours after the shooting, Al-Shuqairat, who serves as the imam for the local Muslim community, said he received a call from Utah County Commissioner Tanner Ainge, who wanted to organize an act of solidarity with local Muslims after hearing about the horrific attack in New Zealand.
Ainge took to Twitter to organize a show of support when Friday prayers ended at about 2:15 p.m.
“How amazing would it be if our #UtahCounty Muslim brothers and sisters walked out of their prayer service today with heavy hearts and found themselves surrounded with love and solidarity from the rest of us?” Ainge tweeted, instructing those who came that they could bring a single rose or a handmade sign.
Ainge and Utah’s Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox both attended the Friday meeting, which Al-Shuqairat compared to a Sunday morning service as practiced by most Christians. As the imam, an Islamic leadership position, he gave a message to the men in one room before leading prayers, while women watched on a screen from a separate room.
Al-Shuqairat’s message Friday focused on finding common ground with those who are different from you, and on showing love to others as the Muslim faith calls them to do. He encouraged those in attendance to pray for those victimized in the shooting, calling hatred a “disease” that people should be careful not to let build up in their hearts.
Ainge and Cox each addressed the mosque’s attendees after a special prayer was said for the victims in New Zealand.
Ainge said he knew that each of the people in the room had probably experienced mistreatment because of their religion, or their country of origin.
“I just wanted to be here today,” Ainge told them. “Outside, there is a whole number of our group from our community that wanted to say we love you, we’re here for you, we’re praying for those who lost their lives.”
Cox said the state of Utah was founded by people who were seeking an opportunity to express their religion and escape persecution.
“Utah must stand for that,” Cox said. “We must provide a safe space for everyone, wherever you come from, whatever part of the world, whatever you believe, that you have an opportunity to worship your god.”
Al-Shuqairat said he could not express how much he appreciated the outreach.
“It came at a much needed moment, for all Muslims everywhere,” Al-Shuqairat said. “They feel they are abandoned, feared, profiled, and to see that much love is very touching.”
Al-Shuqairat said he’s been grieved all day by the news of the killings in New Zealand.
“They were killed for nothing, just for being in a mosque in a peaceful country,” Al-Shuqairat said. “They’ve just run away from violence and killing to be in a peaceful place to raise their children and families, and yet they get killed while they’re at a mosque.”
Despite everything, Al-Shuqairat said he was saddened more than anything by the hatred in the killer’s heart. While he does think about and worry about his children possibly being targeted for their faith, he said he believes in destiny.
“I believe if it’s my time, it’s my time, and I would feel sorry for the ones who targeted me for my religion,” he said. “It doesn’t make me feel afraid or change what I do. My belief in God is much more powerful than any kind of fear that I would have that anything like this could happen to me.”
Meher Shaikh, another mosque attendee Friday, said that sometimes, living in an apartment with three girls and wearing a hijab can be a little scary, even in relatively safe Utah.
“People have prejudices and biases,” Shaikh said. “It makes it difficult.”
But the outpouring of support from the community helped remind Shaikh that there are plenty of people who want to reach out in a positive way to those practicing different faiths.
“I liked it,” Shaikh said. “It gives a feeling of, there are people who care.”
The attack has been condemned by Gov. Gary Herbert, who called the attack “hateful” and “vile” in a prepared statement Friday afternoon
“I am sickened when I think of it,” Hebert said in the statement. “In addition to the horror of these murders, I am disgusted by the shooter’s white supremacist ideology.”
The Pacific Area Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which includes New Zealand, also issued a statement in support of those affected.
“We are deeply saddened by the tragic loss of so many lives as a result of yesterday’s senseless attacks in two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand,” the statement said. “Our prayers are with the families of the deceased, the injured, and all others impacted by this tragedy. We also pray for all New Zealanders and our Muslim brothers and sisters throughout the world.”