Baltimore-area Muslims call for goodwill, a strengthening of faith after New Zealand attack

The leader of Baltimore’s largest mosque urged an overflow crowd to show patience and kindness to everyone around them — and to continue, as always, to reach out and help anyone in need — in response to the Friday morning massacre that took the lives of 49 Muslims in two New Zealand mosques.

Sheikh Hassan Lachheb, an imam at the Islamic Society of Baltimore, used his khutbah — the sermon that is part of Jumu’ah, the prayer service Muslims attend on Fridays — to stress that even though it’s natural to experience grief, anger and depression at moments of “great calamity,” it’s at exactly such times that the Islamic faithful are called to summon what’s best in them.

“We have to build an alliance of goodness that defeats the audacity of hatred,” Lachheb said after addressing the more than 2,000 worshippers at the Catonsville mosque on Friday afternoon.

Forbearance might have seemed a tall order less than 24 hours after self-described white supremacists entered a pair of mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, and opened fire on worshippers who were attending their own Friday services.

The shootings left 49 people dead and nearly the same number hospitalized, and sent shock waves around the world — especially in Islamic communities.

Arslan Ali of Catonsville was working his job at a local gym shortly after midnight when the news hit, and what he learned was so awful he couldn’t even process it at first.

Then the 19-year-old, a lifelong member of the Islamic Society of Baltimore, got in his car and went for a long drive, and the tears that began to flow didn’t stop for a long time.

“I couldn’t believe it. In New Zealand, of all places, where the gun laws are so strict? I can’t even find the words to tell you what I was feeling. It’s so devastating.”

Saad Baig, a resident scholar and educator at the mosque, said the fact that the shootings took place during a worship service only intensified the pain and uncertainty for Muslims.

“People come to prayer services for a sense of solace, for a time of connection with God,” he said. “They don’t think of the mosque as a place of violence. This will cause fear in our communities and, I’m afraid, will shake up people’s sense of attachment moving forward.”

Security, always robust at the mosque, was heightened for the service, typically the best attended of the week.

Mosque officials added plainclothes officers to their customary force, and city and county police officials said they were increasing their presence at mosques throughout the Baltimore area.

Anne Arundel County police said Friday morning that they have provided extra security at three Islamic worship centers in Annapolis, Gambrills and Pasadena.

Baltimore County and Howard County law enforcement also increased patrols at and around mosques and other Muslim centers following the New Zealand attack. Both departments said no threats have been made locally, but patrols will increase in an abundance of caution.

In Harford County, the sheriff’s office said in a statement that officers have a strong relationship, cultivated over many years, with local Muslim leaders, cultivated over many years.

Many at the Catonsville service said the gathering itself — and the Baltimore community in general — provided another layer of reassurance.

Ali said he looked forward to attending the Friday service all morning, and when he arrived, the sight of worshippers of all stripes flooding in immediately eased his sense of isolation.

“The support you get here is so touching, so important, and it just gives you strength,” he said of the mosque, which claims about 14,000 regular attendees.

Mosque president Ed Tori said that when he woke up early Friday morning he found his cellphone jammed with messages of solidarity — and not just from Islamic Society of Baltimore members.

Rabbis and ministers, politicians and law enforcement representatives had reached out with statements of support, and Tori said such sentiments go a long way toward reassuring members of the community that they belong, even in their time of need.

“There’s an Islamic saying that goes, ‘When one part of the body aches, the rest of the body aches,’” he said. “That applies within our community, but also between our community and the rest of Baltimore. The message has been, ‘you’re not alone — you’re definitely not alone when tragedy strikes.’ That helps to ease what everyone’s going through.”

Among the attendees Friday were Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr., who delivered a message of support at the end of the service, and Rabbi Etan Mintz of B’nai Israel Synagogue in downtown Baltimore.

As worshippers filed out afterward, many stopped to trade hugs with Mintz, whom few knew but whose yarmulke made his faith obvious.

Mintz said an Islamic Society of Baltimore imam came to visit B’nai Israel in the wake of the shootings that killed 11 people in a Pittsburgh synagogue in October, and it was only natural to reciprocate.

“I’m here to show solidarity, just as this community did for us at that time,” he said.

Tori said mosque leaders communicated early Friday morning in the aftermath of the news and swung into action to plan the early outlines of a community response.

Mental health practitioners were made available throughout the day, he said, and Baig, a former imam with counseling training, was set to lead a community gathering on how to deal with tragedy at 7 p.m., an event that was to be livestreamed on the mosque website.

Tori said he saw those as just initial steps on what promised to be a long road. Mosque officials were conferring on what kinds of programs to offer, but Tori said he’s confident that the community has been forward-thinking enough to put the right resources in place to be both “nimble enough and empathic enough” in its response.

“Still, with a tragedy like this, it’s going to be a campaign, not an event,” he said. “It’s going to be months.”

Tori, a physician, cautioned community members not to watch the video the killers created of their rampage and posted on the Internet.

“I believe in managing your own state [of mind], and managing your state involves managing your input,” he said.

Baig said it was crucial to remember that the most important way to prevent violence is continuing to practice outreach across cultural boundaries.

“It’s sad that our ignorance of each other can lead to such horrific acts”, he said.

And he agreed with Lachheb that it’s even more important to remember the tenets of one’s faith in times of heartbreak.

The goal of the terrorists, after all, was surely to frighten Muslims away from their faith and traditions.

“We should not be disheartened, and we should not avoid the mosque, as they no doubt wish, but we should come even more often, to populate it,” Baig said. “We must pray for the victims and their families, continue to trust in God, and continue to build our faith.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Lillian Reed and The Capital contributed to this report.

jonpitts@baltsun.com

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