At a subdued national memorial service Friday for victims of New Zealand’s mosque terror attacks, speakers emphasized confidence in the country and its handling of the tragedy’s aftermath.
Fifty people died in the mass shootings in the city of Christchurch on March 15.
A succession of survivors, religious and civic leaders, along with community members, took the stage in Christchurch, each introduced in the country’s official languages of English, Maori and sign language. An immense crowd of attendees spread across a grass lawn before them.
From a wheelchair onstage, survivor Farid Ahmed, whose wife died in the attack, spoke of forgiveness. “People ask me, ‘Why did you forgive someone who has killed your beloved wife?’” he said.
“I don’t want a heart that is boiling like a volcano, a volcano has anger, fury, rage, it does not have peace,” he said. “I want a heart that will be full of love and care and full of mercy.”
“Probably he has gone through suffering in his life and he could not process the suffering in a constructive way,” Ahmed later said in reference to the shooter. “I do not support his wrongdoing. I cannot deny the fact that he is my human brother.”
Yusuf Islam, formerly known as Cat Stevens, performed his 1970s hits “Peace Train” and “Don’t Be Shy.” But it was Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, addressing the crowd in a feather cloak, who received a standing ovation.
“Racism exists, but it is not welcome here,” Ardern said. “An assault on the freedom on any one of us who practices their faith or religion is not welcome here.” The 37-year-old has won global praise for her handling of the attacks, as she swiftly moved to reassure the Muslim community and tighten the nation’s gun laws.
New Zealanders have a “responsibility” to keep their country diverse and welcoming, she told the audience.
Ardern has previously declared that she will never speak the name of the shooting suspect, who will appear in court in early April. At the memorial, she instead called out 95-year-old Auckland World War II veteran John Sato, who famously took four buses to attend a march against racism after hearing of the attacks.
“Over the past two weeks, we’ve heard the stories of those impacted by this terrorist attack. They were stories of bravery, they were stories of those who were born here, grew up here, or who had made New Zealand their home. These stories, they now form part of our collective memories, they will remain with us forever. They are us,” she said.
“As-Salam Alaikum,” she said in conclusion, Arabic for “Peace be upon you.”