Prayers as those who belong reclaim their mosque

7:37 pm on 23 March 2019

First person - The smell of fresh paint permeates the Al Noor Mosque on Deans Avenue in Christchurch. Underfoot is soft gray underlay and long strips of masking tape - the new carpet has not yet arrived.

Members of the Muslim community leave the Al Noor Mosque in Christchurch, after it was opened to members of the public in groups of 15 at a time.

Members of the Muslim community leave the Al Noor Mosque in Christchurch, after it was opened to members of the public in groups of 15 at a time. Photo: AFP

Inside the mosque a hall with doors on either side leads to the prayer hall, a large rectangular room that lies under the mosque's dome. Ahead is the mihrab, the niche in the wall indicating the direction of Mecca, and next to it a simple wooden pulpit where the imam addresses the faithful.

On the cream-coloured wall above the pulpit the sun is casting a long shadow of Arabic script from a high window near the ceiling.

In this simple space, most of the 50 people killed in the 15 March terrorist attack found their deaths. And it is to this space that the Muslim community has been desperate to return.

At 11.20am, deputy police commissioner Wally Haumaha formally handed back the mosque to a group of about 50 people. They stood in silent, personal prayer before entering the mosque led by its imam, Gamal Fauda, draped in a New Zealand flag.

Outside, Muslims from Christchurch and further afield gather, eager to re-enter the mosque and reclaim it as a place of prayer and community.

Walking to Al Noor mosque.

Walking to Al Noor mosque. Photo: RNZ/John Gerritsen

A young inconsolable woman kneels sobbing in front of a picture of one of the dead and a woman in a headscarf kneels with her to try and offer comfort.

A bearded man is talking insistently and carefully to a small crowd pressed against the metal gates to one side of the mosque's front fence. He is firm and patient and soon begins admitting groups of 15 people at a time. Women, children and those with flights to catch are given priority.

As armed police stand watch, the mosque's leaders explain that no recording or photography will be allowed and there are no facilities for wudu, the ritual washing that precedes and follows prayer.

Five minutes is allowed for personal prayer but no more, they explain, because so many people want to come and pay their respects. Non-Muslim journalists are among the first to enter and they are admitted without question or hesitation - the Al Noor Mosque is welcoming its own but it is also welcoming the world. Later, the general public is allowed in too.

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Members of the public were among those wanting some time for reflection inside the mosque. Photo: RNZ / Isra'a Emhail

When the time comes, shoes are removed and placed next to a garden blooming with roses and the group files silently and sombrely inside.

Arriving in the prayer hall, men move to the right of the hall and begin their prayers. A small group of women go to the women's prayer room before moving to the left of the main prayer hall and making their own observances.

There is no crying. There are few tears.

The memories of those who died here are very much alive in the hearts of those who knew and loved them, but there is no trace of the killer or of the terrible events of 15 March.

Fresh paint and new carpet will not heal the hearts of the mourning, but the Al Noor Mosque has now been reclaimed by those to whom it belongs.

The Al Noor mosque.

The Al Noor Mosque on Deans Avenue in Christchurch. Photo: AFP

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