Religious leaders and dignitaries from at least 60 countries have joined a crowd of tens of thousands gathered at Hagley Park in Christchurch for a National Remembrance Service honouring the victims of the mosque terror attacks.
The country’s prime minister Jacinda Ardern, wearing a traditional Maori Korowai cloak, was greeted with a standing ovation on Friday morning as she told the crowd the outpouring of support had left everyone “humbled and united”.
“Simple words, al-Salam Alaikum, peace be upon you.
“They were words spoken by a community who the face of hate and violence had every right to express anger, but instead, opened their doors for all of us to grieve with them.
“We may have left flowers, performed the haka, sang songs or simply embraced, but even when we had no words, we still heard yours and they have left us humbled and they have left us united.
“Over the past 2 weeks we have heard the stories of those impacted by this terrorist attack. Those stories of bravery, there were stories of those who were born here, grew up here, or who had made New Zealand their home, who had sought refuge or sought a better life for themselves or their families.
“Their stories, they now form part of our collective memories. They will remain with us forever. They are us,” she told a crowd of up to 10,000.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison, opposition leader Bill Shorten and Governor-General Sir Peter Cosgrove were among those who laid flowers at the adjacent Al Noor mosque earlier on Friday, before the service got underway at 10am local time.
The remembrance service marks two weeks since a gunman killed 50 people and wounded another 50 Muslim worshippers on March 15 in an attack on the Al Noor and the Linwood mosques in Christchurch.
Heavily armed officers patrolled the central city park, with snipers and elite staff from Australia reportedly boosting police numbers in what has been described as the country’s biggest security operation.
The ceremony was opened with a Maori welcome, greeted with remarkable silence given the size of the crowd spread across the sprawling park.
Musician Yusuf Islam, formerly known as Cat Stevens, was among several singers who performed.
Before singing his 1971 hit Peace Train and Don’t be shy, he told the crowd: “Our prayers go to those shining souls whose lives were snatched away in that moment of madness. May peace be upon them. Peace in this world may take a bit longer”.
— Jeremy Lasek (@LasekJeremy) March 28, 2019
Survivor Fared Ahmed, who was wheeled onto the stage still suffering injuries, said he wanted to offer prayers to those who were killed, and those who survived.
Mr Ahmed lost his wife Husna Ahmed in the attack and was wounded himself but said he didn’t want hatred to be the prevailing emotion.
“People ask me, why do you forgive someone who has killed your beloved wife?” he said.
“I don’t want to have a heart like a volcano. A heart like that would hold anger, fury, rage and hatred.
“I have chosen peace, I have chosen love, and I have forgiven.”
Ms Ardern thanked the global community who have reached out to “embrace New Zealand and our Muslim community”.
She called on international leaders in the audience, including Mr Morrison, to collectively condemn the cycle of extremism that had become a global plague.
“To all of those who have gathered with us, we say thank you and we also ask that the condemnation of violence and terrorism turns now to a collective response, the world has been stuck in a vicious cycle of extremism breeding extremism and it must end,” she said.
NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian said she was in Christchurch to honour the 50 victims who lost their lives.
In Christchurch attending the memorial service to honour the 50 victims of the horrific terrorist attacks of March 15. On behalf of all of NSW we extend our condolences to their families and loved ones and continue to offer our support in every way. pic.twitter.com/dh7wd8zxUw
— Gladys Berejiklian (@GladysB) March 28, 2019
The ceremony coincides with remembrance gatherings around New Zealand which are broadcasting coverage of the Christchurch event via big screens.
Thousands more were expected to attend a service at Auckland’s Eden Park on Friday afternoon.