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Canada ‘It revives the pain’: How New Zealand attack shook survivors of the Quebec mosque shooting

Mohamed Labidi, Quebec Islamic Culturel Center former president, talks to the press in the Quebec City Courthouse following the sentencing of perpetrator Alexandre Bissonnette, on Feb. 8, 2019.

ALICE CHICHE/AFP/Getty Images

News of the New Zealand mosque shootings struck Mohamed Labidi like a lightning bolt, he said. The additional detail that the suspect had the name of the Canadian killer who shot up Mr. Labidi’s Quebec City mosque written on a rifle magazine made him flinch as if he’d been punched in the gut.

“It’s all too much,” said Mr. Labidi, the co-founder of the Quebec City mosque where a gunman shot and killed six Muslim men and wounded five more in 2017, his voice trailing off.

Mr. Labidi and several dozen worshippers arrived as usual at the mosque in the Islamic Cultural Centre for Friday afternoon prayers. He was followed a short while later by Aymen Derbali, the brave man who drew fire from the Quebec City gunman at that very mosque and became quadriplegic from a bullet.

Their minds were on worship, but were also thousands of kilometres away on the New Zealanders with whom they now share an identity as victims of Islamophobic hatred. A white supremacist is accused of storming two mosques in Christchurch on Friday, killing at least 49 people and wounding about as many.

“Oof, we are just profoundly hurt by this tragedy in New Zealand,” Mr. Labidi said outside the mosque. “This day is just like the day after January 29 for us. It revives the pain we lived. It also reminds us that the confusion still exists, that people put every Muslim in the same category, mixing all the good people and all the people who do bad in this world.”

Mr. Derbali paused outside the mosque briefly. “It’s very difficult, being one of the victims of that sort of attack on a day like today. It’s also difficult because he was clearly inspired by what happened here,” he said.

The inspiration of which Mr. Derbali spoke was as clear as the white ink used to write “Alexandre Bissonette” on the gunmetal black of the New Zealand shooter’s weapon. (The suspect misspelled the Quebec shooter’s family name.) The early hours after Friday’s shootings showed parallels and suggested lessons that the accused in Christchurch might have learned from his Canadian predecessor.

Both were steeped in extreme right-wing, anti-immigration rhetoric. In the Quebec case, journalists pieced together evidence of hate from community members in the immediate aftermath. Months later, police investigators presented a more complete picture in open court. In New Zealand, the suspect put together an 87-page manifesto, leaving nothing to chance.

Six mosque surveillance cameras captured the Quebec attack. The images were viewed once in open court and then placed under permanent seal by the trial judge. Before the viewing, security guards at Quebec Superior Court seized mobile telephones and other potential recording devices, so concerned was Justice François Huot that the video could find its way into the public domain and become inspiration for other murderers. The Quebec killer himself had watched videos of previous murderous rampages dozens of times.

The accused in New Zealand appeared to have made his own video, streaming it into the public domain where it will likely be impossible to erase.

The videos themselves offered chilling evidence. The Quebec murderer’s semi-automatic rifle jammed on the very first round, leaving him with a less deadly pistol to complete the attack. The suspect in New Zealand experienced no similar malfunction.

In both attacks, shooters strode up to plain prayer rooms, gunning down some people as they emerged and then others as they cowered in corners. Both made sure to reload their weapons from the cover of the mosque entrance.

Heroic worshippers were captured on video trying to stall both the Quebec City and Christchurch attacks. In addition to Mr. Derbali, who drew fire from the Quebec killer, Azzeddine Soufiane barrelled into him and was shot and killed. In New Zealand, at least one unidentified man was recorded rushing the suspect and reportedly wrestled a weapon away.

But the accused in New Zealand was better armed and more methodical and ruthless. While the Quebec City shooter did not risk penetrating deep into the mosque where survivors hid in corners, a stairwell and a closet, the suspect in Christchurch did not hesitate.

After the Quebec City mosque shooting, hundreds of thousands of Canadians gathered in cities and towns to express their support for stricken Muslims.

Many rallied once again Friday, along with people around the world, in the most hopeful parallel with the 2017 attack. Chicoutimi, Toronto, Calgary and Victoria, among others, planned vigils. In Quebec City, a fundraiser for the New Zealanders is in the works.

“The pain is indescribable, but we have to get to work once again, against these extremists, from all sides,” said Quebec City mosque president Boufeldja Benabdallah as he choked back tears. “It’s our only option.”

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