Editor's note: Deseret News reporter Tad Walch is in the South Pacific reporting on the impact of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the current trip of the faith's leader, President Russell M. Nelson, in six island nations.
CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand — The first gunshots sounded like firecrackers to the man who stands up to bullies. He remained kneeling on the floor in prayer next to the prayer hall door along with more than 80 other worshipers.
Then he saw a shotgun appear in the window at the front left of the hall, a blast shatter the glass and a shot strike a man in the head. The man by the door sprang up, grabbed a credit card machine off a table and ran out the door to confront the attacker.
"That was the heaviest object I could see. Everything else was shoes" removed by the worshipers, said Abdul Aziz, 47, a native of Afghanistan.
Aziz is relentlessly positive, but he paused once Tuesday as visitors walked through the story of the March 15 attack on his house of worship and another mosque that ended with 51 dead and 46 injured here in Christchurch, New Zealand.
He looked down at the ground. The silence began to stretch.
"Sometimes it hits you really hard," he said finally. "Sometimes you can still hear the sounds of the shotgun and remember seeing those who died here, the loved ones that we lost and those who were injured."
It is in moments like this that members of other faiths in Christchurch want to be present to mourn with their neighbors, as they have since March 15, sitting with them in their pain, helping widows with food and providing other aid, knitting a new fabric of solidarity across beliefs.
Shortly after Aziz spoke on Tuesday, the leaders of Christchurch's two mosques were 670 miles north in Auckland to meet with President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who presented them with a check for $100,000 from the church to help their communities press forward.
"The coward wanted to divide us," Aziz said of the gunman, "but he only united us more and more. I wish all the world was united like we are here now. At the end of the day, we are all brothers and sisters. We are all sons and daughters of Adam and Eve. We are the same."
"Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints the world over were heartbroken when we heard of the deadly attacks on innocent worshippers in the Al Noor and Linwood mosques of Christchurch on March 15," President Nelson said Tuesday, reading from a letter he presented to Dr. Mustafa Farouk, the president of the Islamic Associations of New Zealand, in the Relief Society room of the Redoubt Stake Center in Auckland.
"Our prayers, love and support are with you and all others affected by these senseless tragedies."
Shagaf Khan was at work when he received news that there was a shooting at the Al Noor Mosque, which he manages as president of the Muslim Association of Canterbury.
"The first question in my mind was how am I going to handle this," he said. "How are we going to rebuild our community? How are we going to start the mosque again?"
The church's donation will help.
"When someone comes from overseas and shows his love for us, it is really heart-touching," he said. "We can feel their sacrifice."
The leader of the Linwood Mosque, where Aziz worships, does not like to recall the attack, but he does dwell on the outpouring of support he witnessed.
"The love shown to us right away from the New Zealand government and New Zealand as a whole and the whole world, irrespective of faith and beliefs, took 50 percent of the horror, the trauma out of us," Imam Alabi Lateef Zirullah said.
President Nelson called it incomprehensible that anyone could harm another human being.
"So what can we do?" he asked. "We can pray, we can love, we can minister, we can give a donation. They appreciate it all. They appreciate the fact that we care."
'I will stand up'
Aziz also cannot stand to see one person harm another.
"If I see any innocent life in danger, I will act," he said. "In the Koran, Allah said if you save one innocent soul, you save humanity. If you take one innocent soul, you kill humanity. It doesn't say one Muslim, it says one soul, and like I said, we are all the same.
"If anyone bullies anybody, I will stand up. I hate bullying. I will not tolerate it."
So on March 15, Aziz dashed up the driveway and to the front of the mosque. There he found a father, mother and son lying dead in the gravel after arriving late for prayers. Farther ahead, the gunman ran up the long, narrow driveway to the car he'd parked to block the entrance.
Still carrying his makeshift defense weapon, Abdul Aziz followed, though at first he thought the attacker was a soldier. When he saw the man reach into the car for an assault weapon, Aziz fired the credit card machine at him.
"Suddenly, he started shooting at me," Aziz said Tuesday as he recreated the scene for a visitor. "The first bullet went past my head like this," he added, his finger tracing a line past his right ear. "I ducked between two of the cars parked along the side of the driveway."
Then two of his four sons who had been praying with him came out of the mosque.
"Daddy, daddy," they yelled. "Please come inside."
"You guys go inside," Aziz said. "I will be all right."
New Zealand Police Constable Jason Keeys was part of the protection detail posted at the mosque on Tuesday. He and Aziz are now friends.
"He showed a complete disregard for his own life that day," Keeys said. "The bravery he showed that day without any training is remarkable."
"My life wasn't important," he said.
'We're not divided'
Differences in beliefs haven't been as important since that day, said Matthew Gardner, acting chair of the Canterbury Interfaith Society and a Roman Catholic. Help for the Muslims has come from Christchurch residents who are Hindu, Hare Krishna, Buddhist, Sikh and different Christian groups such as Anglicans, Presbyterians, Methodists and Latter-day Saints.
All of it is needed, two months later. And the need will persist.
"To me something is pretty evident," Gardner said. "They have lost a sense of security, a sense of safety, a sense of wellbeing in their community. I've also seen that feeling spread to other minority communities."
Fortunately, he said, a lot of people "have come out of the woodwork" to help. In fact, the Muslim community has been overwhelmed. On Tuesday, people gazed at the Al Noor Mosque, where 44 died, from across the street. Others walked onto the property to snap photos with cellphones. Others laid flowers outside.
He said the interfaith groups have provided financial support, but the main thing they want to show their Muslim brothers and sisters is solidarity, to show that faiths are working together, not opposing each other.
"We are not divided like the world wants to say we are," he said. "We're not fighting, we're not divided like people think we are."
On Tuesday afternoon, 20 men knelt shoulder to shoulder on a new blue carpet in the Al Noor Mosque, repeating "God is Great" in Arabic again and again during afternoon prayers. They'd arrived a few minutes earlier, after an unseasonably cold fall morning in the Southern Hemisphere had turned in to a gorgeous blue-sky day.
Toward the right of the row, one man sat in a plastic green chair, unable to kneel. Adeeb Sami, 53, is recovering from two gunshot wounds he suffered March 15. When the attacker left the room, a man next to him asked if he'd been shot, then promised to help him. But the gunman returned and murdered the would-be helper.
"If you hit a dog while driving, no way you come back and hit it again," said Sami, an International business consultant from Dubai. "No way. He did that. This was hate."
The attacker left Al Noor and drove to the Linwood Mosque, where he began firing on Aziz after Aziz threw the machine at him.
Aziz spotted a gun dropped by the attacker, picked it up and squeezed the trigger. It was empty. But when the attacker went back to his car for another weapon, Aziz went after him again, throwing the empty gun at the car, shattering a window. The attacker may have thought the window had been shot out. He drove off with Aziz chasing him down the street. Police stopped and arrested the man shortly after.
The outpouring of help began immediately. Aziz arrived home to food and flowers and hugs.
While Sami spent 19 days in the hospital, his wife couldn't pay for parking when she came to visit. Bystanders, seeing she was Muslim, rushed forward to pay for her. Before the mosques reopened, volunteer laborers from around Christchurch installed new carpet and made repairs.
Local members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints provided rides for victims' families so they could see their loved ones in the hospital, helped them access legal help and provided food.9 comments on this story
This week, The Church of Jesus Christ is also giving $6,515 to the Lady Khadija Charitable Trust, which is run by some who sit on the Canterbury Interfaith council with Latter-day Saints. The church is also working to provide 100 "Baskets of Love," food baskets for 100 Muslim victims' families during the month of Ramadan. The local Latter-day Saint leader, President Jared Ormsby of the Christchurch Stake, said the Muslim survivors are examples of great faith.
"Their response has been great. They have an unwavering, abiding faith. They continue to have that commitment."
Sami said the response has impressed the world.
"Everyone, including in the Middle East, is talking about how the New Zealand community has been," he said.
Church News editor Sarah Weaver contributed to this story.