Victims and relatives of those touched by the Christchurch terror attacks will travel to Saudi Arabia as part of their recovery efforts.
It’s been five months since the shocking act of terrorism that left an indelible mark on the Land of the Long White Cloud, but for those who experienced it first-hand, the sense of rebirth is starting to creep in.
Temel Atacocugu was shot nine times in the attack on the Al Noor Mosque but believes now is the time to give thanks for his second chance at life.
The 44-year-old Christchurch kebab shop owner is among 200 survivors and victims’ relatives from the Christchurch mosque shootings who are traveling to Saudi Arabia for the Hajj as guests of King Salman. The king is paying for their airfare, accommodation and travel costs, a bill which will exceed $1 million.
All able-bodied Muslims are required to perform the hajj once in their lifetime, with many saving their hard-earned money for years just to make the journey.
The annual pilgrimage draws almost two million Muslims from around the world to Mecca, with a series of ancient rites and prayers designed to cleanse the soul of past sins.
The Saudi ambassador to New Zealand, Abdulrahman Al Suhaibani, said King Salman was shocked by the 15 March attacks at two mosques in which an Australian white supremacist has been charged with killing 51 people.
The Christchurch shootings have been cited as inspiration by other white supremacists, most recently in an attack at a Walmart store in El Paso, Texas, which left at least 22 people dead.
Each year, the king invites several hundred people to perform the hajj as his own guests, often selecting those most touched by tragedy that year. Al Suhaibani said this is the first time the king has invited anyone from New Zealand on his annual program to help get people to the hajj who otherwise may struggle to make it.
Two weeks ago, the ambassador travelled to Christchurch to hand out the simple white garments the male pilgrims will wear. The terry cloth garments worn by men are meant to strip pilgrims down of adornment and symbolize equality of mankind before god.
“It’s a wonderful time and this is a golden chance for people to get spiritual elevation,” says Gamal Fouda, the imam at the Al Noor mosque, one of the two mosques that were attacked.
Fouda, who also survived the shootings, is travelling with the group as a spiritual leader. He says that while all Muslims want to do the hajj, many tend to delay their trips due to the expense, especially from distant New Zealand.