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Canada ‘I won’t be scared of praying here’: Quebec City mosque reopens for worship

Three men console each other after making an emotional return to the Centre culturel Islamique de Québec on Thursday. The mosque was closed following last weekend’s shooting attack.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Quebec City's main mosque is operating as a place of worship and reflection again, despite the bullet holes to patch and carpets to replace. But friends and family of the six who were killed and the 19 others injured last Sunday night say life will not continue quite as it was.

"There is before January 29 for us and there is after. It's another world," said Ramzi Khemiri, a former vice-president of the Centre culturel islamique du Québec.

In the late evening Tuesday, the faithful began returning to their sanctuary, which was open to all so the public could see the tangible remnants of the assault, macabre as they may be.

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"I know who that was, and who that was," said Samir Djadja, pointing to blood stains where people were shot. "These were my friends, who I'd known for years. We wanted people to see how horrible it was. This wasn't a movie. There were lives lost and [children left fatherless]."

On Wednesday, the visitors included several non-Muslims, many of whom dropped off flowers – one man, Yvan Robitaille, said his family once owned the lot on which the mosque is built, and that he visited last year when someone left a pig's head on the doorstep (an incident police investigated as a hate crime).

He choked back sobs in saying he was there "to tell you [the community] that I wanted you to stay."

The facility remained open until lunch hour. The mood was quiet and sombre – although one woman, Yasmina Hadjsahraou, made a ritualistic wail that hails martyrdom – as congregants relived the tragedy amid television cameras and reporters.

Congregants shared one new detail: Alleged shooter Alexandre Bissonnette, 27, who has been charged with six counts of premeditated murder, may have done reconnaissance on the building before Sunday.

Mosques in Western countries occasionally attract curiosity-seekers, so it didn't seem especially odd when a white man in his 20s showed up after evening prayers last Thursday and accosted some of the people leaving the building.

It was more unusual when the same man returned on Saturday and hit up one of the congregants for $10, ostensibly for cab fare.

Ali Ben Tahar, who was in the basement for a Koranic verse reading when the shots first rang out, says he never exchanged words with the young man and was taken aback when photos of the alleged assailant were shown on television.

"It seemed to me I saw him before," he said.

Members of the mosque filtered in throughout Wednesday morning.

Kamel Jemai leaned on a square beam and pinched the bridge of his nose before walking over to the place where his friend Boubaker Thabti was shot in the head.

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"We have to accept, we have to move forward," Mr. Jemai said, "but it's not easy."

At the same time, he added, "I won't be scared of praying here."

Rachid Aouame, who was at the back of the room when the shooter entered, sounded a similar note.

"Today, it's really difficult because it's the place where I lived this horror. But I will come back every day. My three-year-old daughter today said, 'Papa, we're going to the mosque.' She loves coming here. We want it to remain a space for the community," he said.

A few hundred metres west on Sainte-Foy Road, business was starting to pick up at Épicerie-Boucherie Assalam.

The halal grocery was owned by Azzeddine Soufiane, the smiling butcher who was killed when he leaped to confront a gunman at the mosque. (Mr. Soufiane is the "martyr" to whom Ms. Hadjsahraou was paying homage).

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The store, a one-stop market and restaurant, has been a gathering place for the city's Moroccan and Tunisian communities since it opened in 2010.

One white-smocked butcher, who declined to give his name, said none of Mr. Soufiane's direct relatives are involved in the business, but that "we all feel like his brothers and sisters."

Mr. Soufiane, 57, leaves behind his wife and three children.

"The economic wheels have to keep turning," said Abdel Faidi, who stopped in to pick up several packages of meat. "Whether we like it or not, there's rent to pay at the end of the month, there's food for the children.

"It's a sign of their love for Azzeddine that [the employees] have taken the business onto their shoulders."

Mr. Faidi said that this week's outpouring of sympathy has heartened the community.

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"I'm very proud to be a Quebecker and a Canadian. And more so today than yesterday. When the silent majority comes out to show its love and tolerance, we mustn't be held hostage between the extremes," he said.

In Montreal, Mayor Denis Coderre announced a funeral will be held for three of the victims at the Maurice Richard Arena on Thursday.

Some of the bodies, which were brought to Montreal for autopsies, will be flown to the victims' birth countries after the service while others may be buried in Montreal, where the bulk of Quebec's Muslim community lives.

There is no Islamic cemetery in Quebec City, although Mayor Régis Labeaume said on Wednesday civic officials are willing to consider long-standing community plans to open one.

Mr. Labeaume told reporters "it's an issue that's been dragging on for years, but we're working on finding solutions."

A second funeral ceremony will be held in Quebec City on Friday.

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In addition to the public commemorations, some Muslim leaders are organizing a formal "open doors day" for the general public at mosques around Quebec in mid-February.

At least a dozen of the roughly 80 mosques in the Montreal area have already agreed to participate, he said.

"It's like a healing process," said Salam Elmenyawi, the head of the Muslim Council of Montreal, an umbrella organization. "It's to try to get the Muslim community to engage" and reject the idea of closing itself off further after Sunday's events.

With reports from Ingrid Peritz in Quebec City and Nicolas Van Praet and Les Perreaux in Montreal

The mosque attacked Saturday night in Quebec City opened its doors to media on Wednesday evening. A spokesman for the mosque said that it was a means of showing the openness of the Muslim community.
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