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Interfaith community in Harford gathers to honor victims of New Zealand mosque shootings

Sheikh Omar Baloch, imam of the Masjid Al Falaah mosque in Abingdon, is with the Rev. Baron Young, left, and Rabbi Gila Ruskin while reading a communique signed by all three during an interfaith service Sunday to remember the victims of mass shootings at mosques in New Zealand.
Sheikh Omar Baloch, imam of the Masjid Al Falaah mosque in Abingdon, is with the Rev. Baron Young, left, and Rabbi Gila Ruskin while reading a communique signed by all three during an interfaith service Sunday to remember the victims of mass shootings at mosques in New Zealand.(David Anderson/The Aegis)

Dr. Rehan Khan, president of the congregation at the Masjid Al Falaah mosque in Abingdon, said he understands the grief and anger people feel over the recent mass shootings at two New Zealand mosques that left 50 worshippers dead.

He urged those present for an interfaith service at the Abingdon mosque Sunday evening, held to remember the victims of the attacks, to avoid words of anger, even for the shooting suspect. New Zealand’s prime minister described the shootings, which happened in the city of Christchurch, as a terrorist attack.

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“We are saying, ‘Love for all and hate for none,’” Khan said. “Even for that perpetrator of that horrific act, we will not be using hateful language, not even for him.”

He addressed an audience, composed of members of the Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths who reside in Harford, Cecil, Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties, who filled a prayer room at the mosque past capacity.

“No matter what religion you belong to, the Creator is one,” Khan said. “He has created every one of us, and no one has the right to take anyone’s life just because you disagree.”

Relatives were anxiously waiting for authorities to release remains of those killed in massacres at two mosques in the New Zealand city of Christchurch.

The suspect is Brenton Harrison Tarrant, a 28-year-old Australian man who wrote a lengthy manifesto expressing his hatred of Muslims and desire to take revenge for people who died in jihadist terror attacks in Europe in recent years. Tarrant broadcast live video of the shootings on social media.

Khan did take tech companies such as Facebook and YouTube to task for allowing the video to show up on their sites — officials from both companies have reported multiple copies of the video have been removed, such as 1.5 million copies from Facebook, although the initial livestream was on Facebook for 17 minutes until the social media giant was alerted by New Zealand law enforcement.

Multiple people made remarks during the service, which lasted about 45 minutes — people also socialized before and after the service.

Speakers included visitors such as Rudwan Abu-rumman, president of the Anne Arundel County Muslim Council and a retired Air Force colonel, and Zainab Chaudry of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR.

Many Harford County clergy members spoke, such as Rabbi Gila Ruskin of Temple Adas Shalom in Havre de Grace; the Rev. Baron Young, pastor of St. James A.M.E. Church in Havre de Grace; the Rev. Norman Obenshain, pastor of Havre de Grace United Methodist Church; the Rev. Ben Cachiaras, pastor of Mountain Christian Church in Joppa; as well as Harford County Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler.

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Member of the Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths gather before an interfaith service Sunday at the Masjid Al Falaah mosque in Abingdon to remember the victims of shootings at mosques in New Zealand.
Member of the Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths gather before an interfaith service Sunday at the Masjid Al Falaah mosque in Abingdon to remember the victims of shootings at mosques in New Zealand.(David Anderson/The Aegis / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Gahler noted tragic events that have happened in Harford County, such as the murders of two Sheriff’s Office deputies in 2016 and workplace shootings in 2017 and 2018.

“Out of those events, our Harford County community has shown how a diverse community can come together and be so strong,” he said.

The sheriff urged people to have a plan in case a similar event happens at one of Harford’s 300 houses of worship.

Khan mentioned that he had contacted the Sheriff’s Office Friday morning upon learning of the shootings in New Zealand and said deputies were assigned to ensure the Abingdon mosque was secure.

Gahler said he was “happy to be able to provide a couple of deputies” to support the mosque, but law enforcement officers cannot be everywhere at all times. The Sheriff’s Office is providing active-shooter training to members of the faith community and employees of the school system. Gahler said people should “certainly have a plan for what to do if, God forbid, we are ever faced with such a situation” similar to what happened in New Zealand.

Sheikh Omar Baloch, imam of Masjid Al Falaah, read a joint communique crafted and signed by him and his fellow clergy members, Ruskin and Young — their three congregations form The Alliance of Abrahamic Faiths of Harford County. Ruskin and Young stood with Baloch as he read the statement.

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“Hate speech is not equal to free speech,” Baloch stated. “We want love for all and hate for none.”

One member of Masjid Al Falaah, Bel Air resident Mohamed Hilmi, said he lived near the Al Noor mosque — one of the two mosques attacked — when he was a student at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch in the late 1980s and early ’90s.

“It is one of the last places you would ever expect something like this to happen,” Hilmi told the audience. “People were so nice, welcoming.”

Today, Hilmi works for InterAction, a Washington, D.C.-based coalition of non-government organizations that work in disaster relief. He said later that that Harford County is a “very small, a very tight-knight community” that reminds him of Christchurch.

“People come together in this community, which is so nice to be part of,” he said. “People care for each other.”

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