In wake of shooting, New Zealanders show kindness to Muslims

A woman pauses as she lays flowers on a wall at the Botanical Gardens, Saturday, March 16, 2019, Christchurch, New Zealand. (AP Photo/Mark Baker)
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CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand (AP) — New Zealand's stricken residents reached out to Muslims in their communities and around the country on Saturday, in a fierce determination to show kindness as a 28-year-old white supremacist stood silently before a judge, accused in mass shootings at two mosques that left 49 people dead.

Brenton Harrison Tarrant appeared in court amid strict security, shackled and wearing all-white prison garb, and showed no emotion when the judge read him one murder charge. The judge said "it was reasonable to assume" more such charges would follow. Tarrant posted an anti-immigrant manifesto online and apparently used a helmet-mounted camera to broadcast live video of the slaughter on Facebook.

The massacre during Friday prayers prompted a heartfelt response from Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who pronounced it "one of New Zealand's darkest days" and said the shooter, an Australian native, has chosen to strike in New Zealand "because we represent diversity, kidness, compassion."

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Her fellow countrymen seemed to want to prove her right by volunteering acts of kindness. Some offered rides to the grocery store or volunteered to walk with their Muslim neighbors if they felt unsafe.

In other online forums, people discussed Muslim food restrictions as they prepared to drop off meals for those affected.

"Love always wins over hate. Lots of love for our Muslim brothers" read a handwritten card on a wall of flowers in a historic part of the city that stretched a full block.

Still, Muslims remained on high alert and were advised to stay away from mosques while the nation's security alert remained at the second-highest level for a second day.

It was by far the deadliest shooting in modern New Zealand history.

Tarrant posted a jumbled, 74-page manifesto on social media in which he identified himself as an Australian and white supremacist who was out to avenge attacks in Europe perpetrated by Muslims.

The gunman livestreamed 17 minutes of his rampage at Al Noor Mosque, where, armed with at least two assault rifles and a shotgun, he sprayed worshippers with bullets, killing at least 41 people. Several more people were killed in an attack on a second mosque a short time later.

Two other armed suspects were taken into custody Friday while police tried to determine what role, if any, they played in the cold-blooded attack that stunned New Zealand, a country so peaceful that police officers rarely carry guns.

Tarrant's relatives in the Australian town of Grafton, in New South Wales, contacted police after learning of the shooting and were helping with the investigation, local authorities said. Tarrant has spent little time in Australia in the past four years and only had minor traffic infractions on his record.

Police Commissioner Mike Bush confirmed Tarrant was involved in both shootings but stopped short of saying he was the sole gunman.

During the Saturday morning hearing, a man who was not in court was charged with using writings to incite hatred against a race or ethnicity, but it was not clear if his case was related to the mosque attacks.

"We appear to primarily dealing with one primary perpetrator, but we want to make sure that we don't take anything for granted in ensuring New Zealanders' safety," Ardern said.

New Zealand, with a population of 5 million, has relatively loose gun laws and an estimated 1.5 million firearms, or roughly one for every three people. But it has one of the lowest gun homicide rates in the world. In 2015, it had just eight gun homicides.

Ardern said Tarrant was a licensed gun owner who had legally bought the five guns used in the crimes.

"I can tell you one thing right now, our gun laws will change," Ardern said.

She did not offer too much detail, but said a ban on semi-automatic weapons would be looked at. Neighboring Australia has virtually banned semi-automatic rifles from private ownership since a lone gunman killed 35 people with assault rifles in 1996.

Before Friday's attack, New Zealand's deadliest shooting in modern history took place in 1990 in the small town of Aramoana, where a gunman killed 13 people following a dispute with a neighbor.

The prime minister said 39 survivors remained in hospital on Saturday with 11 critically wounded. But the news was trickling down slowly, and many were still waiting for news of their loved ones.

Outside one of the two mosques, 32-year-old Ash Mohammed pushed through police barricades on Saturday in hopes of finding out what happened to his father and two brothers, whose cellphones rang unanswered. An officer stopped him.

"We just want to know if they are dead or alive," Mohammed told the officer.