In the face of anger and hatred, there was peace. So much peace. Even a peace train.

Two weeks after the terror attacks in Christchurch, international dignitaries, Members of Parliament, and tens of thousands of people, gathered with the families of the victims – of the 50 dead and almost the same number injured – to remember.

They came to reiterate the outpouring of love, compassions and kindness, and to reinforce the message of unity. Thanks were given to those who tried to help the dead and were caring for the injured.

The bedrock of the service was New Zealand’s diversity, with the symbolic coming together of our Muslim brothers and sisters, our Ngāi Tahu whanau, and all people who now call Aotearoa home. They were pulled from all corners of the earth, and broadcast to millions in all corners of the earth.

And from every lip, whether spoken or sung, from massacre survivor Farid Ahmed to singer Yusuf Islam/Cat Stevens, came the same message. Asalamu Aleykum. Peace be upon you.

Again it was the Muslim voices that resonated most, like the haunting call to prayer.

From his wheelchair, survivor Ahmed talked of mercy and forgiveness, even though his wife, Hosne Ahmed, had been killed. He tapped his heart as he said he didn’t want any more lives to be lost, through anger and hate. He called the gunman his human brother.

The crowd stood and clapped his remarkable message.

If last week’s call to prayer was about grieving, about solidarity and sharing our shock, then today’s national remembrance service in Christchurch was a chance to begin healing and looking to the future.

Ahmed invoked Christchurch’s moniker, the Garden City, as a lesson. Gardens have different flowers, he said. “They stay one beside the other in peaceful coexistence – even the human being have to be like this.”

Muslim Association of Canterbury president Shaggaf Khan, who gave the Du’a, or Muslim invocation, said he was saddened not to see the faces of the 50 men, women and children lost in the tragedy. But he was humbled by the outpouring of grief and support. The sharing of love. A response that was unforgettable.

Singer Yusuf Islam said people learn about things through opposites. That from the evil carnage had come love and kindness and unity. “Peace in this world may take a bit longer,” he said, before performing two songs, including ‘Peace Train’. 

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was clapped by a crowd who, it seemed, didn’t want to stop. Gone was the headscarf of last week. Instead she wore a Māori cloak, or korowai. Her language changed, too.

On the day of the attacks she said: “They are us.” Today she focused on the stories from the terrorist attack, stories of bravery. “They will remain with us forever. They are us.”

The clouds rolled overhead, changing blazing sunshine to dim, diffuse light. It seemed to reflect the darkness imposed on Christchurch – and the country – two weeks ago, and the increasing periods of sunshine.

If last week’s call to prayer was about grieving, about solidarity and sharing our shock, then today’s national remembrance service in Christchurch was a chance to begin healing and looking to the future.

New Zealanders were urged to search their hearts, to not stand idly by in the face of racism and hatred, to stand up to bigotry and hate. Against what Governor-General Dame Patsy Reddy called the “poisonous malice that seeks to divide us”.

Ardern said New Zealand is not immune to hate and fear of other. “But we can be the nation that discovers the cure.” She added: “We have work to do.”

There were political messages. Christchurch Mayor Lianne Dalziel called for social media platforms to be more responsible, adding: “Hate has no place here, hate has no place anywhere.”

Ardern talked of the “ugliest of viruses” in society – “racism exists but it is not welcome here”.

Zoher Suterwala, a Muslim of Indian descent, from Auckland, said he attended the service to pay his respects to the victims. The service touched his heart, he says.

“The world can learn from New Zealand,” he says. “Peace has to be here and stay here.”

Christchurch man Patrick Veenstra attended with son Reuben, 11, who goes to Russley School. “Fifty of our neighbours and our friends, brothers and sisters, died because some guy didn’t like them. He didn’t even know them.” He attended to show that was not OK.”It’s not the country we live in,” he said, wiping away tears. “It’s really important.”

Reuben said attacks like those on March 15 should not happen. “It was just nice to be here, quite cool to hear what people have to say about it.”

As your correspndent left Hagley Park, an array of Muslim men fanned across the footpath handing out pamphlets. They were titled “Introduction to Islam’, ‘The Qur’an’, and ‘Islam is not a religion of extremism’.

One of them was from Malaysia. He said there was no hate for the gunman. “We hope God will guide him,” he said, before opening his arms and walking forward for an embrace.

David Williams is Newsroom's environment editor, South Island correspondent and investigative writer.

Leave a comment