Hundreds of Torontonians turned up at Nathan Phillips Square on March 15 in response to the New Zealand shooting. Photo by Michael Swan

New Zealand attack hits close to home for Canadian bishops

  • March 18, 2019

OTTAWA —The horrific murder of 50 Muslims at prayer at two New Zealand mosques March 15 hit close to home because of a similar attack in 2017 on Muslims at prayer at a Quebec City mosque.

“The Catholic community of the diocese of Quebec shares the pain and suffering of the Muslim families affected by the attack in New Zealand,” said Cardinal Gerald Lacroix of Quebec on Facebook. “Our humble prayer accompanies you. We continue to believe that it is possible to live together in respect and freedom of worship.”

In a rambling online manifesto, the Australian accused in the New Zealand shootings named the Quebec killer among mass murderers who inspired him. Alexandre Bissonnette was convicted of killing six men in the attack on Quebec Islamic Cultural Centre.

In a March 15 letter addressed to Muslim Brothers and Sisters, the president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) Bishop Lionel Gendron of Saint-Jean-Longueuil assured them of the solidarity and support of the Canadian bishops “during this terrifying time.”

“We are horrified that the attack injured and killed so many people, and left behind a feeling of fear and uncertainty in your homes and places of worship,” said Gendron. “For Canadians, and especially Muslim Canadians, this act of horrific violence is a painful reminder to the shooting which took place Jan. 29, 2017.

“As the Muslim communities and the entire population of New Zealand mourn the dead and care for the injured, the Catholic community of Canada extends to you its fraternal proximity and assurance of prayers and support,” he said.

The Assembly of Catholic Bishops of Quebec also reacted quickly with a statement March15 as they wrote they learned “with horror and pain” of the “terrible crime” committed in New Zealand “against people who only prayed” while meeting in their spring plenary in Trois-Rivières.

“The Bishops reaffirm that religious freedom is a fundamental right that everyone has the duty to respect and they unite their voice to all those who denounce and reject violence in all its forms,” the statement said.

“It’s an evil act, for starters,” said Anne Leahy, former Canadian ambassador to the Holy See who is now a professor at McGill University teaching Catholicism and public policy. “It’s something everyone needs to take a stand against.”

Leahy said more needed to be known about the motivations of the young Australian involved in the killings, but has found reports of the killer being motivated by white supremacy “quite worrying.”

“The political leaders can take a stand and condemn this sort of event for what it is, not to fudge it,” she said, noting that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau “names the tragedy for what it is, an attack against Muslims.”

“It was an act of hatred against specifically Muslim worshippers,” she said. “We have to name the evil to specifically fight the evil.”

Leahy said the response of Quebec officials two years ago set the right tone. In the immediate aftermath, the mayor of Quebec, the Premier, the Cardinal of Quebec and the Imam of the mosque made “great shows of solidarity,” she said. “Their words, effectively made the right gestures and helped a lot in the healing.”

“That was far more important and relevant to citizens in a given place than debating in parliament.”

The reaction of Quebec after the Quebec shooting was “a cry of conscience,” and “an improvement in the attitude of people towards Muslims who have been living amongst Quebeckers for many years,” Leahy said. 

In Toronto, hundreds of Torontonians turned up at Nathan Phillips Square on March 15 in response to the New Zealand shooting.

“The place where you practice your religion should be the place where you feel safest,” Ryerson University political science student Shehaz Shabbir told The Catholic Register.

Whether the massacre had taken place in a church, temple or synagogue, he would have brought his friends from the Ryerson student union to the square in front of City Hall to protest, Shabbir said.

“If something can happen over there, it can happen here as well,” he said.

Fatima Ahmed stood in the rain holding a “United Against Islamophobia” sign with her two young sons, Adam and Yasin, because she felt it was important that her boys see her city, her country and people of good will everywhere are not on the side of hate and violence.

“I’m here to say no to hate,” she said. “We need to know and love each other. I think the problem is that we don’t know each other.”

Representatives of all three levels of government and people representing a wide range of faiths were at the protest quickly organized on social media by, Muslim Youth Fellowship, Faith in the City and the Urban Alliance on Race Relations.

“Once you get past the utter shock and horror of such a barbaric act of mass murder, you have to focus in on what this man did and what was motivating him,” said Andrew Bennett, former ambassador of religious freedom and now director of the Cardus Religious Freedom Institute. “What was motivating him was evil and hatred of Muslims,” he said. “This man killed 50 people when they were being most fully themselves as human beings from a religious perspective.”

A place of worship, whether a mosque or church or temple, “should be the place where we feel most secure and are able to be most fully ourselves.”

The response has to be greater advocacy for religious freedom, Bennett said.  People must be “able to publicly live their faith,” to “publicly worship” and be “free to act on what they believe and what they confess in worship in living out their daily lives.”

A heathy, pluralist society must have broad religious freedom, he said, but we must “draw a very clear distinction between violent acts of hatred which are never acceptable and when people out of genuine belief publicly privately disagree with others about what they believe.”

“The reality is that humans believe very different things, theologically, ethically, ideologically, but if we’re going to have a common life together, if we’re going to live next to one another, we have to be willing to accept difference,” he said.

A key is the respect for the dignity of the individual, despite disagreement. Bennett said Canada’s laws provide penalties for preaching hatred or advocating violence against individuals or a group of people or against the civil order.

However, Bennett said people “should be free to publicly differ about what they believe.”

“As a Catholic, I should have the freedom to publicly say I disagree with Islam,” he said. “I believe Islam is wrong and the fullness of Christ is to be found in Jesus Christ.  Likewise, a Muslim friend of mine has every right to say to me, “You’re wrong and I don’t believe Jesus Christ is the incarnate Son of God. He was a prophet.”

“The hard red line is when people begin to advocate violence and open hatred,” he said. “There needs to be proper limits and we have got provisions already within the statutes.”

“There can be no toleration of violent acts against any human being let alone against human beings in public prayer,” Bennett said.

The New Zealand shooter is said to have been radicalized on social media, and that concerns Bennett. 

Social media is “where a lot of this stuff thrives,” he said.

“Social media does not build up community; it breaks down community, because you are not in physical proximity to the people you are having a debate with,” he said. “It’s easy to dehumanize the person, when not having physical contact with them.”

“We need to be much more questioning on what is going on in social media, and build up genuine human community in our neighborhoods, not electronically but actually physically present with one another.”

(With files from Michael Swan)

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