New Zealand has cancelled a national remembrance service to mark Sunday’s first anniversary of the Christchurch mosque attacks because of coronavirus fears, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said.
“This is a pragmatic decision. We’re very saddened to cancel, but in remembering such a terrible tragedy, we shouldn’t create the risk of further harm being done,” Ms Ardern said on Saturday.
The service to mark the March 15 mass shooting, when a self-avowed white supremacist opened fire at two mosques during Friday prayers, killing 51, had been expected to attract several thousand people, with many travelling from overseas.
Ms Ardern said New Zealand needed to take a precautionary approach.
“The advice we received for this event is that based on people travelling from different parts of the country and from overseas, if there was a case, it could be difficult to trace those who had come into contact with that person, so we are taking a cautious approach,” she said.
“March 15 now becomes an opportunity for every New Zealander to reflect in their own way on the events of a year ago.”
Ms Ardern earlier said New Zealand has “fundamentally changed” since the shootings.
In an emotional press conference in Christchurch, Ms Ardern said engagement with the Muslim community had grown since the massacre at the Al Noor and Linwood mosques on March 15 last year, but the country needed to continue calling out racism and challenging the growing threat from far-right groups.
“A year on, I believe in New Zealand people have fundamentally changed,” Ms Ardern said after attending a special joint prayer with members of both mosques in the South Island’s largest city.
“The challenge for us would be ensuring that in our everyday action, and at every opportunity when we see bullying, harassment, racism and discrimination, we call it out as a nation.”
Brenton Tarrant, an Australian national, faces 92 charges related to the attacks. He has pleaded not guilty and faces trial in June.
Ms Ardern joined more than 1,000 Muslims for their Friday prayers as the Al Noor and Linwood mosques held a combined service that was attended by fellow Muslims from across New Zealand.
Nasir Ali, who flew in from the capital, Auckland, with his family, said it was important to share the “sorrow and hardship” and keep the memory alive.
“We need to keep it on the radar that this sort of tragedy and this sort of extremist ideology does exist and we need to continue to be vigilant about it,” he said.
Farid Ahmed, whose wife was killed by the gunman, said 12 months on he was still at a loss to understand why the killing occurred.
Mr Ahmed has publicly forgiven the gunman and said he refused to be cowed.
“I feel I could die anytime and I should not be afraid because I have got my freedom not to be afraid. No one or nothing can take that away,” he said.
“The lesson is that hate does not solve any problem. If there are differences there is another way and that is the peaceful way.”
“We should talk, we should dialogue, we should ask one another questions and we should not be afraid of one another.”
Taj Mohammed Kamran, who was shot three times while his friend beside him was killed by the gunman, said he felt safe at the Friday prayers because of the large police presence.
“But I was sad because my friend was not there,” he said.
Aya Al Umari, whose brother Hussein, 35, died in the attack, looked at flowers and messages of support outside the Al Noor mosque.
“We live it day in and day out,” she said of the pain of losing her sibling.
“A year on anniversary is a great way for us to come together as a community and reflect on the incident that took the lives of many people and ultimately my brother too.”
Among the tributes outside the Al Noor mosque were signs reading “We may be small, but we are strong” and “We love you!”
Ms Ardern was praised globally for her response to the mass shooting, after she quickly outlawed the type of weapons used in the attack and launched a global campaign for government and tech companies to combat online hate.
She said more than 60,000 prohibited firearms were handed in under a gun amnesty. But her plans to tighten gun laws, including the creation of a registry, stalled this week due to resistance from opposition parties and gun lobbies.
Officials have stepped up security for the memorial events, which are expected to be attended by thousands, after a new threat was reported last week against the Al Noor mosque.
Speaking before the Friday prayers, Ms Ardern said some in the South Pacific nation continued to espouse the views of the Australian attacker, a self-avowed white supremacist.
“New Zealand is not free of those groups who define themselves as extremist white supremacists, those groups exist here,” she said.
“The responsibility we have is to combat not only that existence, but the precursors to that existence. There is much more that we can do.”