Members of the Bay of Plenty's Muslim community say they're overwhelmed by love and support following attacks at two Christchurch mosques last Friday. The rampage left 50 people dead and dozens more wounded. Bay of Plenty Times Weekend reporter Dawn Picken speaks with Muslims, multicultural leaders and other Bay residents to learn about perceived harmony in the region and racism elsewhere in New Zealand that followers of Islam have been warning about for years.

United in Grief

The smell of lilies, roses, carnations, hydrangeas, chrysanthemums and other flowers in varying states of life and decay floats around Tauranga's mosque. It's 7pm on Tuesday, as a turban-wearing police officer with a rifle stands guard outside the gates. He pauses and smiles so a man can snap a photo of him with two young children.

Singles, couples, families - a dozen people young and old - are replaced by a second dozen 15 minutes later. They hover around the mosque's perimeter, stopping to read stories printed, laminated and tied to the fence. Lines and paragraphs depict lives cut short while engaged in prayer.

A 3-year-old is thought to be the youngest victim of the Christchurch terror attacks. Among the dead is 14-year-old Sayyad Milne, a Tauranga man's son.

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Tauranga residents Rachael Master and Caleb McQuoid say learning about victims through words and photos is much more confronting than hearing 50 people died.

"That makes it 10 times worse when you read about the people and their lives and their families," Master says.

McQuoid says each person has his or her own story. "And to see it come to an abrupt halt before its time is really …" He pauses. "Just breaks your heart."

Tea lights flicker under a waxing moon. Origami cranes flutter from the fence; pinwheels bloom from the ground. Among flower bouquets stacked six or more bunches deep against the fence, well-wishers have left handwritten notes.

One quote from Muhammad Ali says: "Hating people because of their colour is wrong. And it doesn't matter which colour does the hating, it's just plain wrong."

A phrase from John Lennon reads: "Don't hate what you don't understand."

Another sign says: "You, our Muslim brothers and sisters are us!" "We [heart] our Muslim whānau" is printed in bold black letters on a large cardboard banner.

Visitors speak quietly. Some eyes well with tears. Adults hold children's hands, couples leave the scene arm-in-arm.

Tony Lenton has brought his two granddaughters, MacKenzie, 13, and Carys, 7, for the second time this week. Carys describes how students at her school are showing they care.

"St Mary's made these doves and you coloured them in and you read a prayer for the people that got shot and they're gonna send them here."

Lenton starts to explain, "We're a Christian family and we're impacted by this…" his voice breaks and he takes a moment to compose himself. He says he knows a lot about Islam, thanks to a former Muslim neighbour who became a good friend. Lenton plans to return to the Mosque Friday to take part in prayers.

"As a Christian you can still pray here, it's not a problem."

He says the rampage has brought Kiwis of different faiths and cultures closer. "I agree with Jacinda [Ardern]. I'm not gonna mention his name but it's had the exact opposite effect of what he intended. So we've seen the best and the worst of humans. It's quite amazing."

Trish Rowe says she's not only paying respects, she's also following flowers she sold to well-wishers from her Brookfield shop.

"I had teachers come to buy and I'm hoping they [Mosque members] take them inside because they'll last forever. I went for silk because it's not gonna die." Rowe says floral gestures and notes are ways to show local Muslims they're "part of our family ... because we're all the same, we're all human."

A mosque member passes by with a box of small, wrapped chocolates and an information sheet about Islam. It includes the line, "Islam, a religion of mercy, does not permit terrorism."

Chris, a Tauranga resident who didn't want to give his last name, says understanding and appreciation of Muslim people has been a positive side-effect of tragedy. "We are all New Zealanders. There's no 'us' and no 'them.'"

The small swarm of visitors becomes a trickle as daylight fades.

Chanting flows from inside the mosque. Prayers have started. Open windows offer a glimpse of foreheads to floor, bodies standing, bowing, repeating … A member opens a side door to reveal two young boys shaking hands playfully before encircling an older boy.

Harmony in the Bay?

Numbers from the latest census figures available, in 2013, show 333 Muslims living in Tauranga City. The number of Hindus (often confused with Muslims) was 900.

If members of the Bay's Islamic community have faced bigotry or racism, they didn't tell us about it. Muslims we spoke with were positive about their experiences, saying Kiwis have made them feel welcome for many years. Some people, though, said more could be done to promote understanding of Islam and other non-Christian religions.

Meet your Neighbours: Mohammad

Mohammad Zaber immigrated to New Zealand from Bangladesh in 2010. He finished his graduate diploma in Auckland and moved to Tauranga in 2013 because his sister lived here. Today, he runs a retail store. His wife, a relief teacher, plans to gain credentials to secure a permanent job in early childcare.

"It's been absolutely beautiful," Zaber said. "I found people is really good. Every Friday I go do my prayer and it's not a problem. People are loving."

Tauranga Muslim Mohammad Zaber. Photo/Andrew Warner.
Tauranga Muslim Mohammad Zaber. Photo/Andrew Warner.

Zaber says promoting understanding of different religions, including Islam, is a continuous process. He'd like to see more open days at the Tauranga mosque where people can hear a lecture and ask questions. He lamented the fact Islamic extremists have damaged the image of his religion.

"People, they have a different mentality... they might think people of Islamic faith have a hidden agenda. There should be enough light focused on what Muslims do, that there's no secret behind the door. They're the same as Kiwis, they work hard, enjoy their families, enjoy life and have so many things in common there should be no problem with co-existence."

Zaber says Muslims are not seeking to convert others or impose Islamic laws in their adopted home.

"We came a long way from our country to here to live properly, in a different environment along with our faith."

While Zaber hasn't personally faced discrimination, he said a friend in Auckland won't ask his boss for a break during Friday prayers.

"Many of my friends say it's better to keep our faith in the private life instead of keeping it in the public space."

While the Christchurch shootings make him "really sad," Zaber is relieved, "it's not some rubbish in the name of Islam attacking innocent people. It makes our life a living nightmare. We condemn every attack, we feel shame, we feel embarrassed, frustrated…"

Terrorism in New Zealand has changed Zaber's perspective about his adopted home.

"I never expected that much support ... and it is wonderful." He commended Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern for her actions, saying her continued contact with the Muslim community shows she's part of the incident and feels their pain.

"We are not outsiders, we are home, as well. If anything happens to other communities, we will be coming to help."

Shamima

Bethlehem resident Shamima Khanikar moved to the Bay from India 14 years ago. She has three children, aged 14, 13 and 11. Khanikar manages a preschool; husband Harmine teaches horticulture.

"I've met the most beautiful people of New Zealand. I've always lived in Tauranga, and as neighbours, as colleagues, as friends, I've always seen their support, their inquisitiveness to learn about my culture, my religion."

Khanikar says she has not experienced discrimination, even when wearing a hijab (head covering). "People looked at me with respect; when I went out with the hijab I never felt any different."

Khanikar says her faith requires her to look after nature, which she can do here. And she appreciates locals' generosity.

"When my husband first moved to Tauranga there was no mosque. There was a church in Gate Pa or Greerton, they gave up a hall. When I heard they went to a church hall to do their Friday prayers, I was like, 'Wow.'"

Mo

Mo Khan is a native New Zealander living in Tauranga "on and off" for 15 years.

He said those first years were more difficult for Muslims after the 9/11 terror attacks.

"But even then, there was a lot of people that were quite comforting and understanding. As time has gone on and people have started to understand us a lot more, it's been more welcoming and you can feel the love around, as well."

Khan, a courier driver, says he's never personally faced racism. Tonight, he's overwhelmed by the continued show of support.

"Every night I come here, even after work when I go past, there's always people there leaving candles and flowers. It's comforting to know we've got the community behind us."

Shamina

Rotorua's Shamina Ambakhutwala arrived in New Zealand from India last September. She and her husband wanted a safe new country for their 14-year-old daughter. She met a Rotorua professor who told her Aotearoa was the best place to raise children.

Ishaan Pathan, 9, and Samina Ambakhhutwala light a candle for the mosque massacre victims. Photo / Ben Fraser.
Ishaan Pathan, 9, and Samina Ambakhhutwala light a candle for the mosque massacre victims. Photo / Ben Fraser.

"I have only one daughter and all my dreams rest on her."

Shamina has already signed onto the volunteer student organisation at Toi Ohomai, where she studies business, and volunteers with the Rotary Club and the Red Cross, too. "That will help me understand the culture well and penetrate slowly into the community. I love the Māori community and the Pakeha community. They are amazing."

Shamina said she and her husband had a long discussion about staying in New Zealand after the Christchurch attacks.

"The first question in my mind: is this the correct direction we have taken? He told me this could've happened anywhere in the world, and we need to see how the Government, how the locals, how the people have responded to this. Definitely for future generations, for my daughter, I want her to settle here."

Ahmed

Tauranga prayer leader Ahmed Ghoneim has been exceptionally busy the past week, holding open days at the mosque, attending vigils and waiting to see if he and other locals could help victims' families.

Tauranga prayer leader Ahmed Ghoneim. Photo/Andrew Warner
Tauranga prayer leader Ahmed Ghoneim. Photo/Andrew Warner

"A lot of people were willing to go and give a hand to go to Christchurch for washing the bodies and getting them ready. There's not much we can do on this side."

Frustrated family members had called on Government to speed the release of bodies. The Police Commissioner said they had to get identifications correct and prove cause of death first.

Ghoneim migrated from Egypt 20 years ago and works as a mechanic. He and his wife live in Brookfield with two children, aged 8 and 6.

"And this is my people. I lived here more than the time I spend back home, have more mates, more friends in New Zealand...this is home. They belong to me and I belong to them."

He said he had not been singled out for racism, but "every now and then you might find a nasty person. Before I answer him back, a Kiwi will answer him back instead of me. That's why I told you this is my people."

Lisda

Lisda Anggraeni is the co-ordinator at Shakti Women's Refuge, an organisation serving migrant and refugee women of Asian, African and Middle Eastern origin. Lisdamoved from Indonesia to New Zealand 13 years ago, seeking a peaceful country to raise her children after a divorce. She lived for three years in Auckland before moving to Tauranga.

Lisda at the Shakti Women's Centre in the Historic Village. Photo/Andrew Warner.
Lisda at the Shakti Women's Centre in the Historic Village. Photo/Andrew Warner.

"Compared with Auckland, this is really nice. I believe our neighbourhood is nice and we look after each other. In Auckland, people are more individual, but have been nice."

Lisda lives in Mount Maunganui and has three children, ages 24, 17 and 10. She said not only have her neighbours provided small gestures like cake at Christmas time. Anggraeni said when she has worn a hijab, she hasn't felt prejudice.

"Tolerance is beautiful, even when we are different."

Muslims have warned of trouble for years

The one story of racism we heard came from the father of a Muslim convert.

Former Tauranga City Council chief executive Garry Poole's daughter lives in Wellington with her three children, aged 9, 6 and 5.

Poole said his daughter converted to Islam in her late teens after attending Wellington Girls College.

"She came into contact with a lot of girls who were from the Islamic faith and the way they behaved, their sense of ease, attracted her to what do these people do to become cool in their own skin."

Poole said his daughter (who wished to remain unnamed), rang him while he was on holiday in Australia to say she had converted.

"I thought it would last a couple weeks, but this is 16 years later and it's not a fad, it's for real. I accept that it's her prerogative to do what she wishes to do on religious and other points of view."

Poole said acceptance by the public of his daughter, who wears a hijab, has been mixed.

"I've walked with her in other cities, and as I'm walking towards people, I can see some people looking in a not-charitable way. My experience is it's 50-50."

Poole believes we need to be more open to diversity, and take action against bigotry.

"She's had people threaten her quite often, words like 'raghead' and stuff like that, and most of that she experienced in Auckland. Some [Muslim] organisations were talking to authorities about taking this stuff far more seriously well before Friday."

The Prime Minister announced on Tuesday an inquiry would be launched to look at what Government security and intelligence agencies could or should have known about the man accused of the Christchurch terror attacks.

The Islamic Women's Council said it warned the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet in January 2017 of the "extreme urgency" of its concerns about rising racism.

"We were absolutely clear about how exhausted and close to breaking the Muslim women's leadership team were. We told them about our concerns over the rise of vitriol and the rise of the alt-right in New Zealand," wrote IWCNZ spokeswoman Anjum Rahman for an opinion piece on Radio New Zealand's website.

Bridging cultures

Organisations such as the Tauranga Moana Interfaith Council and Multicultural Tauranga are a good way to build religious tolerance within communities, according to University of Waikato teaching fellow and researcher Dr Todd Nachowitz.

Nachowitz is also a founding member of the Religious Diversity Centre. He said getting to know people of different backgrounds helps combat ignorance of those who profess hate.

"If we feel helpless in the aftermath of the Christchurch white supremacist terror attacks, then the best course of action would be to get to know your Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jewish and Baha'i neighbours and befriend them." He said reading about other cultures; hosting interfaith/multicultural gatherings; collaborating on projects at work with a colleague of another ethnicity or faith and learning another language are practical ways to promote inclusion.

Reverend John Hebenton, vicar of St George's Anglican Church in Gate Pa, chairs the Tauranga Moana Interfaith Council. He worked with Nachowitz last year to present a religious diversity course in the Bay. He said he struggled to gain support from media and even libraries to promote the class.

"I think we would get a very different reaction now. I think this has put religious diversity and interfaith stuff on the agenda."

Hebenton said many misconceptions exist surrounding religion.

"And a lot of confusion. Sikhs are confused for Muslim because they wear a turban. People just don't know. And the Sikh population, we're a Sikh centre, there's a significant population in Te Puke buying up kiwifruit farms and a growing percentage in schools."

Hebenton said education promotes understanding and peace.

"I'd get in trouble with a lot of my fellow Christian ministers, but in schools, we don't need Christian religious education, we need people to be literate about the religions that are in New Zealand."

Multicultural Tauranga president Ann Kerewaro was finishing a Wednesday migrant-and-locals coffee meeting when we spoke. She said the group talked about the terror attacks and were moved to sing songs. "The last one was Amazing Grace. I had to shut the door and go away. I couldn't listen to it, it was too emotional."

She said the organisation's programmes are open to everyone, whether they've migrated from overseas or from elsewhere in New Zealand. "People who don't know anyone here come to coffee mornings and can meet all sorts of people from all cultures. We're all looking for the same things in life, it doesn't matter where you come from."

Changing religious landscape

Figures from Statistics New Zealand show the fastest-growing religion in New Zealand from 2006 to 2013 was Sikhism, with nearly 102 per cent growth. The other big gains (in faiths with more than 300 followers responding) were in Hinduism (up almost 40 per cent) and Islam (nearly 28 per cent growth). Nearly 42 per cent of Kiwis in 2013 reported having no religion, up from 34.6 per cent in 2006.