By Tom Westbrook and Charlotte Greenfield
CHRISTCHURCH (Reuters) – New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on Tuesday praised the bravery of mosque worshippers as a lone gunman massacred their friends and family, saying the nation stood with its grieving Muslim community in this “darkest of days”.
As preparations for the first burials were underway for the 50 people killed last Friday in the Christchurch mosques mass shooting, Ardern singled out three worshippers, including one of the first killed in the attack.
Hati Mohemmed Daoud Nabi, 71, opened the door to the Al Noor mosque. Ardern said he “uttered the words ‘Hello brother, welcome’. His final words”.
“Of course, he had no idea of the hate that sat behind the door, but his welcome tells us so much – that he was a member of a faith that welcomed all its members, that showed openness, and care,” she told parliament.
Ardern, who has been widely praised for her compassionate and decisive handling of the tragedy, said she never anticipated having to voice the grief of a nation.
Australian Brenton Tarrant, 28, a suspected white supremacist who was living in Dunedin, on New Zealand’s South Island, was charged with murder on Saturday.
He was remanded without a plea and is due back in court on April 5, when police said he was likely to face more charges.
“The families of the fallen will have justice,” said Ardern, adding she would never mention the alleged gunman’s name.
“He may have sought notoriety, but we in New Zealand will give him nothing. Not even his name.”
She ended her speech with the Arabic greeting “Al salam Alaikum”, meaning “Peace be upon you”.
The victims, killed at two mosques during Friday prayers, were largely Muslim migrants, refugees and residents from countries including Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, Turkey, Kuwait, Somalia and others.
No official list of victims has been released and police said they were “acutely aware of frustrations” at the length of time taken to formally identify bodies.
“While identification may seem straightforward the reality is much more complex, particularly in a situation like this,” police said in a statement. Twelve victims had been identified to the satisfaction of the coroner and six of those had been returned to their families, they said.
Bodies of the victims were being washed and prepared for burial in a Muslim ritual process on Tuesday, with teams of volunteers flown in from overseas to assist with the heavy workload.
A wheelchair-using worshipper who survived the slaughter at the Al Noor mosque, but whose wife was killed, has offered an olive branch to the gunman, saying he would like to meet him and tell him “I still love you”.
“I don’t agree with what you did … you took a wrong decision, a wrong direction, but I want to believe in you. That you have great potential in your heart,” said Farhid Ahmed, 59.
Fifty people were wounded and 30 of them are in the Christchurch hospital, authorities said. Nine of them are in a critical condition. One four-year-old child was transferred to a hospital in Auckland in a critical condition.
GUN LAW DEBATE RAGES
The gunman used a semi-automatic AR-15 during the mosque shootings, police said. A New Zealand gun shop owner said the store had sold Tarrant four weapons and ammunition online between December 2017 and March 2018, but not the high-powered weapon used in the massacre.
Ardern has said she supports a ban on semi-automatic weapons and that cabinet has made in-principle decisions to change gun laws which she will announce next Monday.
“Part of ensuring the safety of New Zealanders must include a frank examination of our gun laws,” she said.
While some New Zealanders have voluntarily surrendered guns, others have been buying more to beat the ban.
A gun club in the northern town of Kaitaia burned down early on Tuesday and police were treating the blaze as suspicious.
Simon Bridges, leader of the opposition National Party, said he wanted to get details of the changes to see if there could be bipartisan support in parliament. The Nationals draw support from rural areas, where gun ownership is high.
“We know that change is required. I’m willing to look at anything that is going to enhance our safety – that’s our position,” Bridges told TVNZ.
Ardern has said that Tarrant emailed a “manifesto” to more than 30 recipients including her office, nine minutes before the attack but it gave no location or specific details. In the document, which was also posted online, Tarrant described himself as “Just a ordinary White man, 28 years old”.
Ardern was critical of social media platforms for allowing the distribution of hatred and division, including live broadcasts of the attack.
“We cannot simply sit back and accept that these platforms just exist and that what is said on them is not the responsibility of the place where they are published. They are the publisher. Not just the postman,” she said.
“There cannot be a case of all profit no responsibility. This of course doesn’t take away the responsibility we too must show as a nation, to confront racism, violence and extremism.”
A consortium of global technology firms has shared on its collective database the digital fingerprints of more than 800 versions of the video of the mass shooting.
Anyone caught sharing the massacre video in New Zealand faces a fine of up to NZ$10,000 ($6,855) or up to 14 years in jail.
Facebook, the world’s largest social media network, has said it removed 1.5 million videos within 24 hours of the attack.
Ardern said there would be an inquiry into what government agencies “knew, or could or should have known” about the alleged gunman and whether the attack could have been prevented.
More than 250 New Zealand police are working on the inquiry, with staff from the U.S. FBI and Australia’s Federal Police joining them.
Police will be stationed at mosques around the country when they are open for prayers, and nearby when closed, said Ardern.
“Unfortunately, we have seen in countries that know the horrors of terrorism more than us, there is a pattern of increased tension and actions over the weeks that follow. That means we do need to ensure that vigilance is maintained.”
(Additional reporting by Praveen Menon in WELLINGTON; Editing by Michael Perry and Lincoln Feast)