‘Heartbroken’ Utahns reach out to their Muslim neighbors in wake of New Zealand shootings

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Muhahed Shaikh is joined by his daughter Maryam, 8, as they receive flowers from the community following Friday prayers services at the Al Sahaba Mosque in Orem in a show of love and support following the tragic shootings in New Zealand.

Utah’s Muslim community — shaken by mass shootings 7,500 miles away at two mosques in New Zealand — received support from friends and strangers Friday via texts, telephone calls, flowers and a “flash mob," organized by two government officials.

“It’s tragic,” said Shuaib Din, imam at the Utah Islamic Center in Sandy, “and it should be alarming to all of us, the rise in hate crimes. Not just to Muslims, but to different minorities and ethnicities and people of different color and creed.”

Din said the shooting “has been worrisome to people in our congregation,” and he has received several calls from people “who were definitely nervous.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Muhahed Shaikh is joined by his daughter Maryam, 8, as they receive flowers from the community following Friday prayers services at the Al Sahaba Mosque in Orem in a show of love and support following the tragic shootings in New Zealand.

However, the center continued with its regular Friday services. “We will remember them in our prayers,” he said of the victims and their loved ones, “and, at the same time, look at our own security.”

Din hoped leaders in Utah and the U.S. would speak out and condemn the “act of hate and terror."

“When a [Christian] church burns, Muslims should be sad,” he said, "and when a mosque burns, Christians should be sad.”

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert did address the shootings.

In a written statement, he said he was “heartbroken to hear of the hateful and vile attack on innocent worshippers in New Zealand. I am sickened when I think of it. In addition to the horror of these murders, I am disgusted by the shooter’s white supremacist ideology.”

“We do not tolerate hatred in our communities,” he added. “During this time of pain and mourning, I hope all Utahns will reach out in love to our Muslim neighbors. Let’s extend a comforting hand to those who may be feeling vulnerable and afraid.”

Herbert said the Utah Department of Public Safety and Refugee Services Office will offer focused support to members of our Muslim community "as we reaffirm our commitment to protecting the freedom and safety of all Utahns.”

DPS agents, Herbert’s staff and other state and county officials, including Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill and representatives from the Salt Lake City FBI, met with mosque leaders and other members of the Muslim community after Friday services at the Utah Islamic Center to discuss the community’s needs.

DPS Chief Special Agent Brian Redd said the talks were more about “high-level” issues and concerns than specifics.

“They were sharing their thoughts and feelings and concerns, and we were able just to share our support and just make sure that we’re coordinated over the next several weeks and months to be there for them,” Redd said.

Some community members called for increased patrols around mosques, Redd said. Salt Lake City police plan to increase their presence in those areas, Mayor Jackie Biskupski tweeted Friday.

Redd said in the coming weeks DPS’ focus will be less on sending highway patrol troopers on more patrols and more about officials reaching out to Muslim community members and visiting other mosques. He said DPS will also work with state’s Refugee Services Office to show support and address concerns.

Even though the attack happened at mosques in New Zealand, Redd said, “These things are impactful, and so we just need to keep our humanity and work together and be there for one another."

News of the shootings also upset Utah County Commissioner Tanner Ainge, who said, when he was a student at Brigham Young University, he visited mosques around Utah and developed an appreciation for Muslims and their Islamic faith.

“My heart is just broken for the Muslim community around the world," he said, “but especially in Utah County.”

Ainge put his sadness into action, joining Utah Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox in a “flash mob of solidarity” Friday afternoon at the Al Sahaba Mosque at 352 E. 900 South in Orem.

“How amazing would it be," Ainge told his Twitter followers, "if our #UtahCounty Muslim brothers and sisters walked out of their prayer service today with heavy hearts and found themselves surrounded with love and solidarity from the rest of us?”

Cox retweeted the information to his followers and invited them to attend as well. “Let’s rally together to show them how much we care.”

People brought handmade signs and shared flowers with Muslim worshippers.

Ainge said he felt compelled to do something and called the leader of the mosque early Friday to see if it would be OK to organize the gathering. “Not to make speeches," Ainge said, rather "so they realize they are accepted and surrounded with a lot of a support.”

The shootings “should be a call to action for all peace-loving people" to speak against violence and bigotry, Gachi Guet, president of the Islamic Society of Greater Salt Lake, wrote in a news release. “We must collectively continue the dialogue to actively explore the root causes and solutions for this problem of intolerance and foster a more integrated, benevolent society.”

Maysa Kergaye, coordinator of Utah’s Islamic Speakers Bureau, was awakened early Friday morning by several “sorrowful texts from friends about what kind of world we live in."

Hours later, she still was trying to understand the scope of the tragedy. "You can’t help but feel your identity is being attacked when someone of the same faith is attacked,” she said, adding that she appreciates the solidarity people of all faiths have shown toward her and other Muslims.

“Sometimes bad things bring us together and connect us — whether it’s funerals, illnesses or tragedies like this,” she said. "I"m happy to report there are still decent people who make me feel loved. For every bad guy, we have many good guys."

Members of the Pacific Area Presidency of the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints said they were “deeply saddened by the tragic loss of so many lives.”

“We ... pray for all New Zealanders,” general authority Seventies O. Vincent Haleck, Ian S. Ardern and K. Brett Nattress said in news release, "and our Muslim brothers and sisters throughout the world.”

Latter-day Saint scholar Gina Colvin lives in Christchurch, about a 20-minute bike ride away from one of the mosques attacked in New Zealand.

“The Muslim community is small but has had a home here for 100 years,” she said. “Muslims in my city come from about 70 different countries so it’s very diverse and consists mainly of immigrants and refugees. They are a peaceful and integral part of our community."

Colvin praised the country’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, a former Latter-day Saint, for her response to the shootings, showing the “right degree of outrage and without trying to score political points. She’s compassionate and kind."

The scholar predicts that New Zealand “will be having the white supremacist conversation ... for years to come” and that the nation’s gun laws “will be tightened.”

Tribune reporters Peggy Fletcher Stack and Paighten Harkins contributed to this story.