DNEVER – Pope Francis expressed “heartfelt solidarity” Friday with New Zealand and its Muslim community following shooting attacks on two mosques in the city of Christchurch that left at least 49 people dead.
One of the perpetrators of the attack was identified as a white nationalist seeking to create an “atmosphere of fear”
“His Holiness Pope Francis was deeply saddened to learn of the injury and loss of life caused by the senseless acts of violence at two Mosques in Christchurch, and he assures all New Zealanders, and in particular the Muslim community, of his heartfelt solidarity in the wake of these attacks,” read a telegram released by the Vatican and signed by Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the pope’s top aide.
“Mindful of the efforts of the security and emergency personnel in this difficult situation, His Holiness prays for the healing of the injured, the consolation of those who grieve the loss of their loved ones, and for all affected by this tragedy,” Parolin’s message read.
“Commending those who have died to the loving mercy of Almighty God, Pope Francis invokes the divine blessings of comfort and strength upon the nation,” Parolin concluded. The note was published in English.
As news of the attack spread around the world, Church leaders in other areas also began reacting Friday.
Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster in England, for example, expressed “great pain.”
“The news of the massacre in the New Zealand mosques is deeply shocking and has caused us all great pain,” Nichols said.
“We pray for the many victims, for the wounded and for the whole community, which has been severely affected by this act of terrorism,” he said. “May God free us from these tragedies and sustain the efforts of all those who work for peace, harmony and coexistence.”
The Community of Sant’Egidio, a movement in the Catholic Church dedicated to conflict resolution as well as ecumenical and interfaith dialogue, voiced its “deep condolences.”
“Beyond the heavy toll of victims and the condemnation that every citizen should and must express, it’s important to underline that an attack on a place of worship, on a free space of prayer, represents an offense against every believer regardless of the religion to which they belong,” the statement said.
Sant’Egidio called on Western societies to combat hatred of Muslims and of Islam.
The community “launches an appeal that in the West, the propaganda of hate be arrested, which for some time now has passed from words on the web and elsewhere into deeds, in a rising crescendo of violence and racism, taking on unacceptable symbols and examples and accompanied by distorted historical reconstructions.”
In the aftermath of the attacks on Friday, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern described them as “an extraordinary and unprecedented act of violence.”
A Muslim leader in New Zealand said the attack was especially shocking as it took place around Friday Prayer. The police urged people to stay away from the mosques until further notice, with one official asking mosques nationally to “close your doors until you hear from us again.”
According to police officials, a man in his late 20s has been charged with murder and would appear in Christchurch court on Saturday morning. A number of firearms were recovered from the scenes of the shootings, the official said.
Three other persons have also been detained, although officials said police are still working to understand what role, if any, they may have had in the violence.
According to most estimates, there are over 50,000 Muslims in New Zealand out of a total national population of around 5 million. Many of those Muslims are immigrants from war-torn nations in the Middle East, South Asia and northern Africa, with a substantial pocket from Fiji as well.
There are now several mosques in the country as well as two Islamic schools.