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For the Shafia family's imam, anguish over what might have been

The gravestones of (left to right) Rona Amir Mohammad, Zainab Shafia, Sahar Shafia and Geeti Shafia in the Islamic cemetery in Laval Qc. on Monday, Jan. 30, 2012.

Peter Mccabe/Peter McCabe/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

He was set to bless the wedding of a lovely young couple, and instead six weeks later presided over a funeral that staggered him.

The verdict that three family members, led by patriarch Mohammad Shafia, murdered Mr. Shafia's first wife and three daughters, including the onetime bride-to-be, Zainab Shafia, now fills imam Ali Falih Altaie with sorrow.

"We're so sad for our innocent sisters killed by that murder," he said. "It has been a shock to me and our community to hear such a cowardly, unforgiveable crime confirmed."

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On May 19, 2009, the leader of the Fatima Azzahra Mosque was set to marry Zainab Shafia to her boyfriend, Ammar Wahid. Her sisters, brother and mother were all present and had given their blessing. Mr. Shafia was absent and objected but agreed to allow the wedding to go ahead, according to the imam.

When Mr. Wahid's family didn't show up because they objected, trouble started, according to Mr. Altaie. The Shafias were angry at the snub and called the wedding off.

Forty-one days later, the three sisters and Mr. Shafia's first wife were found at the bottom of the Rideau Canal. The imam wonders if the wedding, had it gone ahead, might have prevented the funeral.

The four victims were buried together at a cemetery north of Montreal on July 5, 2009, after a small funeral performed by Mr. Altaie, who says he wept and didn't "handle things well" during the ceremony.

"It was terrible, just so sad," he said. "God commands justice and charity, and he's against killing and killers, wherever they are, whomever they do it to. This crime [Mr. Shafia]has committed is unforgiveable and unacceptable, by any religion and motivation."

Some in Montreal's small Afghan community of about 5,000 people condemn the crime, while others have trouble with the verdict.

In 28 years in Quebec, Rashid Rahmani, president of the Afghan-Quebec cultural association, insists he has never heard of such a crime. And despite the jury's verdict and the condemnation of the judge in the case, he's not certain a crime has taken place.

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"The Afghan community respects the decision," Mr. Rahmani said. "But for us it's not clear that this family really killed their children or whether it was an accident." After placing that caveat, Mr. Rahmani added that if they did kill the four, the jury made "a great verdict."

To neighbours, the Shafia home on working-class Bonnivet Street in the immigrant and Italian neighbourhood of St. Leonard didn't seem shrouded in mystery or filled with violence. Lucy Trolio could see the family's youngest children jumping on beds through curtainless windows. On warm evenings, the children often played on the balcony.

"I didn't see much of [Mohammad Shafia] but I saw the children often. They were just beautiful, lovely girls who kept to themselves," Ms. Trolio said.

While the scene seemed normal to several neighbours, Ms. Trolio's daughters mixed very little with the Shafia girls. Her eldest daughter, now 20, was just a little older than Sahar and a bit younger than Zainab. "They spoke more French, my girls were more English; there was a culture gap I guess," she said. "But you never saw anyone in that house outside of family members."

Ms. Trolio's family has since moved to a bigger house in a more distant suburb, much as Mr. Shafia had planned to do before carrying out the murder plot.

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