New Zealand and UAE Special Olympics team visit Abu Dhabi mosque after terror attack

Around 40 members of the New Zealand team and their families stood hand in hand with 20 UAE counterparts at Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque to share a moment of silent reflection

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At 5am last Friday, Alan Robson lay awake in his Abu Dhabi hotel room. The head of the New Zealand Special Olympics team delegation listened in horror to a radio station in his native Christchurch, which was relaying early reports of a shooting at local mosques.

Within a few hours, it became clear that a white supremacist had entered two holy buildings at prayer time and gunned down dozens of innocent worshippers.

In a rambling "manifesto", which would later emerge, Brenton Tarrant, the Australian charged with murder, claimed he wanted his attack to fuel division between members of different races and religions.

Less than 48 hours later, at another mosque about 14,000km away in Abu Dhabi, both New Zealanders and Emiratis united in a gesture to prove he would not succeed.

Around 40 members of the New Zealand team and their families stood hand in hand with 20 UAE counterparts in the imposing courtyard of Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque on Saturday, sharing a moment of silent reflection about the tragedy.

It was a show of solidarity with the survivors of the shootings and loved ones of the dead, but also an act of defiance, rejecting the hate and division that the attacker had sought to provoke.

“To be invited there, and be together hand in hand with local members of the UAE community, I think it sent a very strong message,” Mr Robson said. “It was a special moment of remembrance for what happened in Christchurch and felt very significant for all of us, very emotional.

“Our athletes were holding hands with the UAE athletes and I think everybody understood the tragic nature what had unfolded.”

Moments of silence followed speeches in the courtyard from senior figures, including Tim Shriver, Special Olympics chairman, nephew of John F Kennedy and son of Eunice Kennedy Shriver, the Games founder.

He expressed condolences to New Zealanders and “brothers and sisters from the UAE who represent the beautiful faith of Islam.”

Earlier that day, a minute's silence was held across all Special Olympics venues. Competitors sent messages of support to the New Zealand team with the Pakistan swimming team among several to insist on a photo with their Kiwi counterparts, in a show of unity.

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates - Moment of silence for the recent attacks in Christ Church at the New Zealand vs Australia basketball game, Special Olympics at ADNEC. Khushnum Bhandari for The National

The support offered a boost to the morale of the New Zealanders, after Friday morning was spent relaying news of the shootings to athletes and arranging for them to call home to check on families, if they had links to Christchurch, and frantically following media reports.

The news of the attack came hours after the euphoria of the opening ceremony on Thursday, when athletes were cheered into the Zayed Sports City stadium by tens of thousands.

“The Games are all about inclusion and acceptance,” Mr Robson said. “What happened in Christchurch is the exact opposite of that. But the mosque visit, with the reflection and support that we’ve had, really does show the true value of the Special Olympics and both of our countries.

“I’m determined that this won’t stop us going about what we should be doing, which is being involved in sport and breaking down those barriers.”

Also in attendance at the mosque was Matthew Hawkins, the New Zealand ambassador to the UAE. The diplomat has already expressed thanks for messages of support from members of the UAE government, as well as the gesture of lightning up landmark buildings in the colours of his country’s flag.

The vigil at the mosque was one of hundreds of memorial events held throughout the world. On the same evening that he visited the Abu Dhabi mosque, Mr Hawkins said his own family were busy paying tribute to the victims at a mosque in Hamilton, New Zealand’s fourth largest city.

“The response in the UAE to the tragic terrorist attack in New Zealand has been overwhelming,” the ambassador said.

“The opportunity to spend time with the UAE and New Zealand athletes at the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque and listen to Tim Shriver, chairman of the Special Olympics, was very moving and quite emotional.

“The messages of diversity, inclusion and tolerance that I heard at the opening ceremony in Zayed Stadium on Thursday night were amplified as we stood together hand in hand in the middle of the mosque.

“This act of terror goes against the core of what New Zealand stands for. We represent diversity, kindness, compassion. And those values will not and cannot be shaken by this attack,” he said.