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New Zealand's Muslim Community Reacts To Mosque Attacks That Killed At Least 49


And I'm Ari Shapiro. Hello, brother - those are believed to be the last words of a Muslim worshipper killed today in Christchurch, New Zealand. He was heard offering that greeting as he was approached by a gunman, a self-identified white supremacist from Australia. The gunman is now suspected to have killed 49 people at two mosques and injured dozens more. New Zealand's prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, condemned the attacks.


PRIME MINISTER JACINDA ARDERN: New Zealand has been chosen because we are not a place where violent extremism exists. This is not an enclave for that kind of behavior, for that kind of ideology.


It's now Saturday in New Zealand, and for reaction from the Muslim community there, we reached out to Zulfiqar Haider Butt. He's the president of the Manawatu Muslims Association. He said the phone started ringing as soon as Friday prayer wrapped up at his mosque in Palmerston North, New Zealand.

ZULFIQAR HAIDER BUTT: Immediately, I called a friend, a personal friend in Christchurch where this has happened. And that friend told me - because all over the country, there is about 10 to 15 minutes' difference in the prayer times, so they were a bit behind us. The actual prayer hasn't started yet, and probably this is the reason why we don't have casualties. Otherwise, I can understand that this would have been 250 to 300 people at least on a Friday prayer and they would have been sitting in drawers.

I was told by that friend that when he was approaching the mosque that the thing had already started. And he didn't go inside, but he did see dead bodies, even on the driveway, on the road. Now, we are getting reports that there are at least 49 dead and still around 40 people are still in the hospital from the gunshots.

CORNISH: What are you hearing in terms of the needs from the family and relatives or from the mosques?

HAIDER BUTT: The mosque is closed at the moment and we have to arrange this big number of funerals, maybe today or tomorrow. We have been told that, at the moment, there are enough people to - because there is a special requirement for the dead bodies to be cleaned and properly put the coffin on. So we have been told that there are enough people there and enough coffins there. But we are still standing by if they need any kind of help.

CORNISH: After the shootings, New Zealand's police commissioner came out and told Muslims not to go into mosques, right? To stay inside, to close their doors. You're not close to Christchurch, but is the mosque where you are closed today?

HAIDER BUTT: Yes, it - the local police commander did call me, or his office did call me, and they said, we are not forcing you to close the place. We are suggesting you to close the doors and don't ask people to gather in the mosque. That's why we canceled the evening Quran classes for the kids and we have also canceled the Sunday (unintelligible) for the school-going kids.

The community here is really lovely. I mean, all day yesterday after the incidents, I have been receiving phone calls, text messages. People have left the cards at the gate, mosque gate. Flowers and - literally, people have been - I mean, non-Muslim people, they have been crying and apologizing for this act. So lots of support is there.

CORNISH: We're learning more about the suspect and his motivations. Has the Muslim community in New Zealand felt threatened by white nationalists or any other sentiment like that in the last few months?

HAIDER BUTT: Not in that sense. Some people are concerned, but I don't think there is a general feeling of fear or concern. Some people may get angry, but there is no clear fear in the people that - oh, it will happen again, or it is - it has started. So we are hoping that it will stop here and it will never happen again.

CORNISH: As a Muslim leader, what message do you have for your community of Muslims and also for your neighbors?

HAIDER BUTT: Yes, I have asked my community and members that - please stay calm. Don't be aggressive. Be vigilant and careful and don't spread any fake news, because as soon as it happened yesterday, there were - I mean, a number of posts on the Facebook and other social media channels that there has been shooting in the hospital and the school and blah blah. So I have requested the community members and my committee members not to forward any such kind of news and be calm and patient.

CORNISH: Zulfiqar Haider Butt, thank you for speaking with us.

HAIDER BUTT: Thank you very much.

CORNISH: Zulfiqar Haider Butt is president of the Manawatu Muslim Association in Palmerston North, New Zealand. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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