Imam Zeeshan Ahmed was preparing for his Friday sermon at the Mahmood Mosque in Regina when he heard about the New Zealand mosque attack that left 50 people dead and the rest of the world stunned.
“I was preparing and looked at my phone, and I was just shocked, and I couldn’t believe that this happened again,” he said.
“Friday is a day where nobody would expect something like that to happen. You know, it’s a quiet, peaceful day, you come listen to the sermon, you pray. So it was a difficult thing to just grasp as an individual for me. And I saw that in my community, too.”
On the morning of Mar. 15, Regina woke up to the news that a shooter had entered two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand and opened fire, killing a total of 50 people and injuring 50 more. A 28-year-old man from Australia who described himself as a white nationalist was charged in connection with the attack.
Usaid Siddiqui, president of the Muslim Students’ Association (MSA) at the University of Regina, found out about the attack when a friend sent him a video of the news coverage. He didn’t think the video was real until he Googled the attack.
“BBC and all over CNN and Fox News all saying, ‘breaking news 30 minutes ago.’ It was just an absolute huge shock to me, to think something like that could happen in a first world country, especially at some place as safe as New Zealand,” he said.
Throughout that first day, many Muslim students reached out to Siddiqui, wondering if Friday prayers held at the university would still happen and if there would be security.
“Everyone was scared,” he said. “Part of their mindset (was) if it happened in New Zealand, what’s to stop it from happening here in Saskatchewan?”
But Regina’s Muslim community soon discovered it did not stand alone. The Queen City’s outpouring of support for its local Muslim community came quickly.
On Friday morning, Siddiqui said the U of R’s campus security sat down with the MSA and asked what they could do to make people feel comfortable during this difficult time. Campus security also kept watch as students prayed in their university prayer room.
The following day, around 150 people from various religions and walks of life attended a solidarity rally in Victoria Park, calling for love, peace and respect for all. Many carried signs voicing their support for Muslims, with one sign reading, “No hate, no fear, Muslim people welcome here.”
Just a few days later, a vigil was held in front of City Hall to commemorate the victims of the shooting. Regina mayor Michael Fougere and Chief Evan Bray from the Regina Police Service were among those who gathered to show their support.
Reverend Uttam Barua from the Buddhist Centre of Regina attended the solidarity rally and spoke about how everyone has a shared humanity and the right to live in peace.
“We are a human being first, then faith comes second, so you have to take care of each other,” Barua said in a recent interview.
He said he was heartbroken when he first learned of the New Zealand attack and said attacks like this are never acceptable.
“It is not acceptable in the church, it is not acceptable in the Buddhist temple, it is not acceptable in the mosque,” he said.
Ahmed said this showing of support from the community has deeply encouraged him and his congregation.
“We’ve received messages of solidarity, messages of support. At our doorsteps we’ve received flowers from members of the community that we’ve never met in our life,” he said.
“We’re just grateful and thankful to every member of the community here, how they’ve … given us a message through which we as Muslims have become stronger in our faith.”
Barua said he and others at the Buddhist Centre of Regina prayed often for the Muslim community after the attack.
“Peace and harmony (is something) we never can buy in a grocery shop. We have to make it. We have to create it. It is coming from our bottom of heart,” he said. “We have to understand others, so we have to respect others’ faith.”
The Mahmood Mosque also participated in the national Visit a Mosque campaign created by the Ahmadiyya Muslim Jama’at Canada, the branch of Islam that the Mahmood Mosque is part of. The campaign, which ran for a week, saw mosques across Canada open their doors to anyone with questions about Islam.
More than 150 people came out to the Mahmood Mosque to get a tour and ask about what Muslims believe, said Ahmed. Sometimes answering their questions took hours, but Ahmed said he was more than happy to put in the time if it meant helping someone understand Islam better.
Ahmed said that one of the main misconceptions people have about Islam is that it is a violent religion that supports extremism and hatred, but this is not the case.
“The word Islam itself means peace,” he said.
Siddiqui has noticed the same misconception.
“I think, you know, the real reason why there’s fear surrounding Islam is because people don’t know what Islam is. I mean, you see it depicted on the news as ISIS. ISIS is not a representation of Islam,” he said.
“If you really do not know about Islam, and you genuinely want to know, even if you admit that, okay, you have some biases against the religion … my biggest advice is reach out to the local mosque in your community, reach out to a Muslim person.”
Although the past three weeks have been a difficult time for the Muslim community, Ahmed said seeing the city’s support in a tangible way proved to be a silver lining by creating deeper connections across religious lines.
“It was a sad time, but it was also a time where we united as a community. Regardless if we were Muslim, Christian, Hindus, Sikhs, Jewish, we all came together and found a platform where we can support each other and make each other stronger.”