‘We’ll Weep When You Weep’

Marchers at a Jan. 29 vigil in Québec City hold photos of two of the men killed during last year’s mass shooting at the Islamic Cultural Centre of Québec’s Grande Mosquée. • Matthew Townsend

QUÉBEC CITY — Shooting sprees have become a sad and seemingly daily part of life in the United States. A steady drumbeat of headlines reminds Americans that the next shooting is never far away: three killed and two injured in Nashville on Jan. 12; five injured in Alachua, Florida, on Jan. 15; two killed and 14 injured in Benton, Kentucky, on Jan. 23; two killed and three injured in Indianapolis on Jan. 28; and nine killed in two separate shootings in Pennsylvania on the same day.

Firearm deaths, in general, are more unusual north of the 49th parallel; Statistics Canada reported 223 firearm homicides in 2016, compared with 247 just in the city of Philadelphia in 2016. Of Canada’s cities, the safest, perhaps, is Québec City — the mostly Francophone capital of the province and former national capital. The city of more than 500,000 saw two murders in 2015 and one in 2016.

However, 2017 became an exceptional year on Jan. 29, when a young man entered the Grande Mosquée de Québec in the Sainte-Foy neighborhood and shot dead six Muslim men shortly after evening prayers: Ibrahima Barry, Mamadou Tanou Barry, Khaled Belkacemi, Aboubaker Thabti, Abdelkrim Hassane, and Azzedine Soufiane. Nineteen others were injured. The shooter, widely reported as expressing anti-refugee and white nationalist sentiments on social media, awaits trial.

The shooting shocked Canada and the world. The next day, 15,000 people showed up for a vigil in the parking lot at the Catholic church across from the site of the shooting. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was among the mourners.

This year, several events in Québec City marked the anniversary of the shooting. Anglicans, in spite of their relatively small population in the city, were visibly present at an interfaith ceremony held in the city’s expo center on Jan. 28 and an open-air vigil held across the street from the Grande Mosquée de Québec on the evening of Jan. 29.

Bishop Bruce Myers of the Diocese of Québec attended both events.

“We’re citizens of this city, we’re people who practice religious faith in this city, and, on top of that, we’re a religious minority who practice faith in this city,” Myers told TLC at the Jan. 29 vigil, which brought more than 1,000 people into the 12-degree weather. “For all of those reasons, we have a fundamental moral obligation to be here, or to in some way express our solidarity and support with another religious minority who hasn’t been here as long as we have.”

Myers first connected with the Islamic Cultural Centre of Québec — of which the Grande Mosquée is a part — before the shooting, after a severed pig’s head was left at the mosque. He said Anglicans have the opportunity to take some of the privileged position that the church has enjoyed for the last two centuries in Québec and “ensure that newer expressions of religious faith in this place have access to the same room and rights and accommodation as we have.”

More basically, though, Anglicans came to stand with people who are hurting and in grief, he said, “who are still very much afraid and still very vulnerable and under threat, and to say we’re not going to leave you alone, we’ll weep when you weep, and we’ll do everything we can to ensure there won’t be more occasions to weep.”

The vulnerability Myers mentions is palpable: public expressions of hatred have been on the rise since the attack. Social media and radio programs have given space for derision of Muslims, but some acts have been more physical. In July, a defaced Qur’an was mailed to the mosque where the shooting occurred. The president of the Islamic Cultural Centre of Québec saw his car torched in August.

La Meute, a nativist group born of the internet that opposes Islam in Québec and immigration in general, intended to hold a public rally in August; counter-protesters forcefully hampered those efforts. The Soldiers of Odin, a chapter of the Finnish organization of the same name, have patrolled the streets of Québec City, ostensibly to protect residents from Muslim immigrants. In December, Québec City’s police chief said that reported hate crimes against Muslims had doubled in 2017, from 21 to 42.

Expressions of unease have also been political. Bill 62, which prohibits people from covering their faces while using public services, was passed by Québec’s Liberal-party government in October. It raised questions about just how someone in a niqab might ride a city bus; the bill has been called both a great victory for secularism and a deep restriction of religious freedom, and a court challenge was filed in November. Likewise, a proposal to name Jan. 29 a “National Day against Islamophobia” was opposed by the province’s opposition parties for use of the word Islamophobia.

The tension — and even the difficulty finding the vocabulary to describe the situation of Québec’s Muslims — has led Myers and other Anglicans to seek ways to nurture friendships. At Jan. 28’s interfaith event at the expo center, Myers was one of several interfaith clergy — and two Christians — to address the crowd. He shared a remark by theologian Hans Küng: “There will be no peace among the nations without peace among the religions. There will be no peace among the religions without dialogue among the religions.”

Much of the event’s dialogue was conducted through music from each participating faith group; following Myers’s speech, four singers from the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity sang a Nunc Dimittis in memory of the victims. Sandra Bender, choirmaster at the cathedral and organizer of the Anglicans’ musical contribution, was among the singers.

“Our cathedral has a special relationship with the mosque because we reached out to them after the shooting last year,” Bender told TLC. “We had an Evensong service that we dedicated to the families of the victims. We collected money to give them at that service. We’ve been supporting the man who was paralyzed.”

As the Jan. 28 interfaith event was being planned, Boufeldja Benabdallah of the Islamic Cultural Centre told civic organizers the participation of only one Christian group was inadequate representation. That role — the Anglicans’ public participation in an event in which Christian representation would typically be limited to Roman Catholics — recently garnered national media attention for the diocese.

Bender said she found participation in the event incredibly moving. She added that she found meaning in being able “to take part in a community that’s led by people who are not just tolerant, not just willing to accept [Muslims] here, but happy to reach out and try to build new relationships.”

Another aspect of the friendship has grown between Muslims and Anglicans since last year’s shooting: social gatherings that bring both groups into the same room. On Oct. 20, the cathedral hosted a dinner that allowed for social interaction between the communities. The Very Rev. Christian Schreiner, dean of the cathedral, said October’s dinner was “one of my total, absolute highlights in my 12 years at the cathedral.”

Schreiner described receiving a call from his father in Munich on the morning after the shooting, asking him what he would say about the massacre. “I had not heard about it, and I was just completely speechless,” he told TLC. “I could not compute these two concepts of a mosque shooting and Québec City,” a city with “virtually no violence.”

Schreiner said he experienced even more shock after feeling an impulse to commiserate by calling his Muslim friends in the city. “I realized I did not have any Muslim friends in the city,” he said. He and his family attended the vigil that night.

Benabdallah, the center’s vice president and cofounder, attended the solidarity Evensong after the shooting and Myers’s consecration in April; it was then that he issued a call to action to build more relationships between the two groups. That call grew into the October dinner, which mostly comprised young families. Members of the cathedral and the mosque created artwork with their fingerprints — the two paintings they made will hang in their respective houses of worship as a token of friendship.

The dean said the Anglicans’ specific inclusion in the commemoration events was deeply touching, and it reveals how the work being done away from podiums, over broken bread, has helped bring healing to Québec City.

“It made a huge difference, as Boufeldja wrote me after, to breathe life into their community,” he said. He added that the mosque is now reciprocating their invitation; Anglicans are invited to a dinner at the Grande Mosquée in late February.

Bender said the cathedral’s efforts and their fruit have been a very positive experience for her. “I find that Islamophobia is a huge problem in Quebec,” she said, noting the Anglican community’s willingness to accept Muslims as friends. “We don’t say you need to fit into mainstream white, North American culture to be welcome here.”

At the vigil, Myers told TLC he sees God present in the willingness of people to show public support for hurting people, and in the organic relationships that have formed between people of different religions since the shooting.

“I see God operative in how the different religious communities of this city have come together in a very Spirit-led way — very naturally, without any need to cajole people into gathering together. It’s been very spontaneous and very authentic,” he said.

“I think God’s present in how the Muslim community itself, particularly the families of the victims, has expressed not the slightest hint of anger or vengeance, but grace and thanks for the response they’ve received from so many people in this city,” the bishop said, “even in the face of so much hostility and hatred that we’re still seeing and hearing and experiencing towards the Muslim community in this city and province since the attack.”

Then Myers returned to the spike in hate crimes reported in December.

“It’s a further reminder that there’s still much work to do, and the church needs to participate as much as it can.”

Matthew Townsend


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