Saskatchewan Muslims and local church leaders see hope in midst of loss following New Zealand mosque attacks

Leaders from various Prince Albert churches and denominations join Imam Ilyas Isidyot (at podium) and Prince Albert Muslim Association Imam Irshad Unia (far left) in a show of support during a vigil for victims of the mosque attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand. -- Jason Kerr/Daily Herald

Imam Irshad Unia’s first thought when he heard about the March 15 shooting at two mosques in New Zealand was, ‘why?’

The young imam at the Prince Albert Muslim Association Mosque was shocked by news that one gunman had killed 50 people and left dozens wounded at mosques in the city of Christchurch. However, Unia is taking the shooting as a chance to reach out rather than lash out.

“It was a lesson that we should spread more love and be more open about our religion (and) to let people know who we actually really are,” he explained.

Part of that outreach took place Wednesday evening. Unia and other members of the city’s Muslim community gathered with local civic and religious leaders at the Prince Albert mosque for a time of healing, reflection and prayer for the families who lost loved ones.

Unia said the shooting in New Zealand has the potential to create further conflict. However, he’s confident that if Muslims and non-Muslims can get together and talk at events like this one, those conflicts will never happen.

“This gathering was so we can get all the community—different faiths, different groups—to show that we are all united on one front,” he said. “It is to create love and unity amongst our people…. We just need to be more open, more united, talk to more people, get to know one another and spread the message of love.”

Unia’s opinion is a common one among Saskatchewan Muslims. Imam Ilyas Isidyot drove up from Saskatoon for Wednesday’s vigil. Like his counterpart in Prince Albert, Isidyot was shocked when he heard about the shooting, but also driven to create connections rather than division.

“I believe that we are social beings,” he said. “We need to create lots of social events where people come sit by you, listen to who you are, where you are from, what you do. A great introduction can be made like that while we are breaking bread together, and that can create a lot of harmony and piece.”

Isidyot has spent almost 22 years as an Imam in Saskatchewan. During that time he said he’s never had problems with negative or prejudicial comments, even though his family often goes out in their traditional dress. He also said his email account was overflowing with condolence messages from leaders across all faiths following the attack.

Isidyot said it’s vital that people avoid judging entire communities by the actions of one individual. Despite the pain, he’s positive things are getting better, and will continue to get better in the future.

“For our community, we do have a lot of hope,” he said. “Look at this crowd for one little short-notice (event) in the community of Prince Albert. Don’t you see hope is there?”

Isidyot was one of several speakers at Wednesday’s vigil. Other speakers included Prince Albert Chief of Police Jon Bergen, as well as Prince Albert city councillor Dennis Ogrodnick.

Leaders from many of Prince Albert’s churches were also in attendance to offer condolences and support to the city’s Muslim community.  A few, like Grace Mennonite Church minister Ed Olfert, also took the opportunity to address the crowd.

Afterwards, Olfert said it was important to come because Prince Albert residents have to stand together, regardless of what their religious beliefs are.

“We’re all a community,” he said. “That means we stand here in good times and certainly in hard times.”

Olfert found the mosque shootings particularly shocking because of where they happened. His wife’s brother and family live in New Zealand, and he always viewed the country as a calm and safe place.

As a pastor, Olfert said people of all faiths need to double down on their efforts to create peace. Like Isidyot, he’s hopeful about the future, and determined to leave the world better than it was when he entered it.

“Within the larger community that surrounds my church, there’s ignorance and fear there, and in part that inspires me because I can name that, I can call it out and I can help lead people past that,” he said. “I love the opportunity.”