A Christchurch mosque where seven worshippers were slaughtered by a rampaging gunman will reopen its doors for Friday prayers for the first time tomorrow – three weeks after the deadly terror attack.
Beyond the armed police cordon and rows upon rows of flowers and handwritten messages of aroha and support along its front fence, there is today little evidence of the bloody March 15 massacre at Linwood Mosque in the eastern suburbs of Christchurch.
Up a long gravel driveway, where the heavily-armed attacker crept after murdering 42 Muslims minutes earlier across town at Al Noor Mosque, the quaint wooden masjid sits.
Its shattered windows, blown out by deadly gunshots that killed prayer-goers inside, have been replaced.
All of the carpet has been replaced. Smashed woodwork has been patched up and flowerbeds outside in the tranquil gardens are blooming in the watery autumn sun. Security cameras have been installed. It smells new, and tomorrow will be a new dawn for the Linwood Mosque says its leader, Imam Alabi Lateef Zirullah.
"As soon as anybody steps inside this place … it'll definitely be emotional," says the giant Nigerian-born Islamic scholar who survived the shooting and helped protect some of his congregation during the attack.
The 42-year-old father-of-one, who today gave the Herald an exclusive tour of the renovated building, admits the last three weeks have been trying for him, along with his fellow survivors.
Zirullah has been offering guidance and support to those who need it, but has himself taken up offers of counselling.
But now, he is "ready to lead" and will take Friday prayers tomorrow, alongside a visiting Australian imam who has offered to speak in support of his trans-Tasman brothers.
"We will remember those brothers and sisters who we have lost," Zirullah says.
"I want to let people know that of course we lost some of our loved ones but life goes on and that we should give love in return to those who have given us love.
"Some people are still going through a lot of trauma and they just want to relieve themselves of the pain and the loss and the fear. But most of the brothers are okay. We pray every day. We sit here and we chat. Things are getting better."
One of his brothers is Ali Elliot Marshall Dawson, a 33-year-old local who has vowed to attend tomorrow's Friday prayers – the special congregational weekly prayer session.
He survived the attack by hiding in the washroom.
When the shooting stopped, he had to step over 65-year-old Linda Armstrong who had been gunned down by the killer firing wildly through the masjid windows.
After Dawson got outside, and armed police arrived on the scene, he was taken into custody.
"I was a suspect – I matched the descriptions of the guy they were looking for," he shrugs.
But the innocent Dawson was let go soon after and today holds no grudges with police, especially in such "chaotic" scenes.
Tomorrow will be special, he says.
"I just want to get close to Allah. Nothing will put me off coming back," he told the Herald.
The community, and his 100-strong congregation, is ready to have Friday prayers back in its rightful place, Imam Zirullah says.
The support from across New Zealand, including the Government, has been overwhelming.
Every day, flowers, cakes, vouchers, and thousands of cards and letters flood the previously little-known mosque.
For Zirullah, it's given him strength.
"It's a big tragedy, and it will take time for people to get over it, but things are getting back on track," says the Pakistan and Malaysia-educated imam.
"The whole world can learn from New Zealand and the way we have all reacted. People can learn from us and we can stop all this killing. And it works the other way round too – those brainwashed by Isis and all this … it only brings shame and pain."
Zirullah says he grew up admiring the peace and beauty of New Zealand.
After the September 11, 2001 terror attacks, the little country at the bottom of the planet seemed another world away.
"It was separated from the rest of the world – it just stood out on its own. That's why I loved this country and I will keep on loving this country," he says.
Last Friday, Zirullah held Friday prayers in North Hagley Park after the National Memorial Service where Al Noor Mosque terror attack survivor, Farid Ahmed, whose wife Husna was killed trying to rescue him, forgave the murderer.
Zirullah says while the shooter had aimed to lay a foundation of hatred in New Zealand, it's resulted in him building a "whole loving community and society".
"Like brother Farid said, he is still a human being and we must pray for him," he says.
"Whatever drew him to do such things, even if he hates Islam, I am sure that a small percentage inside him knows he has done the wrong thing. He might not ever say it but I am sure that he will know. He is a human being, he is not an animal, he will have the feelings. So, we must pray for him, and for people like him."