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CHRISTCHURCH: Muslims held emotional prayers inside Christchurch’s main mosque on Saturday for the first time since a white terrorist massacred worshippers there, as New Zealand sought to return to normality after the tragedy.

The Al Noor mosque had been taken over by police for investigations and security reasons after alleged gunman Brenton Tarrant gunned down Muslims gathered there and at a smaller mosque for Friday prayers on March 15, killing 50 people.

The main mosque was handed back to the local Muslim community on Saturday and began allowing small groups onto its grounds around midday.

“We are allowing 15 people at a time, just to get some normality,” said Saiyad Hassen, a volunteer at Al Noor, adding that there were no plans yet to fully reopen the mosque.

Among the first to enter was massacre survivor Vohra Mohammad Huzef, who said two of his roommates were killed and that he managed to survive only by hiding under bodies.

“I could feel the bullets hitting the people and I could feel the blood coming down on me from the people who were shot,” said Huzef, a Christchurch civil engineer originally from India.

“Everyone wants to get back in again to give praise and to catch up. This is the central point of our community.”

The terrorist attacks shocked a country of 4.5 million that is known for its tolerance and prompted global horror, heightened by Tarrant’s cold-blooded live-streaming of the massacre. New Zealand came to a standstill on Friday to mark one week since the bloodshed, with the Muslim call to prayer broadcast across the country followed by two minutes of silence.

The ceremonies saw poignant scenes of Maoris performing the traditional haka war dance, and non-Muslim New Zealand women donning headscarves in solidarity.

But one of four concert sites at a music festival in the capital Wellington was evacuated on Saturday night just before a planned minute of silence for Christchurch, underlining lingering apprehensions.

Police cited unspecified “concerns about a person”, but later called it an “innocent misunderstanding” and the concert was slated to proceed.

In Christchurch, police also handed back Linwood Mosque, the second killing zone several kilometres away from Al Noor, but no plans to allow visitors were announced.

An armed police presence will remain at both mosques, as well as others around New Zealand.

Workers have rushed to repair the mosques’ bullet-pocked walls and clean blood-spattered floors.

At Al Noor, visitors knelt at a garden tap to wash their feet and faces in pre-prayer ablutions.

Some wept quietly inside the mosque, where bright sunlight streamed through windows and the air smelled of fresh paint. No bullet holes were seen.

Men and women then knelt and prayed on a padded carpet underlay taped to the floor, still awaiting replacements for the mosque’s blood-stained rugs.

Several members of Christchurch’s semi-professional football club Western A.F.C. arrived in team colours to honour three victims who were known to the team due to their interest in the sport. The players left a bouquet of flowers outside the entrance to the mosque’s grounds.

Government officials and police said two relatives of victims had died, with New Zealand identifying one as 65-year-old Suad Adwan, who had arrived from Jordan for the burial of her son Kamel Darwish, 38.

The grief-stricken mother was found dead on Saturday morning having apparently passed away in her sleep, just hours after her son’s burial, of what police called a “medical event”.

No other details on the deaths were given.

About 3,000 people walked through Christchurch in a ‘march for love’ in the morning, honouring the 50 victims of the attack. Carrying placards with slogans such as, “He wanted to divide us, he only made us stronger”, “Muslims welcome, racists not”, and “Kia Kaha (Maori for ‘stay strong’)”, people walked mostly in silence.

“We feel like hate has brought a lot of darkness at times like this and love is the strongest cure to light the city out of that darkness,” said Manaia Butler, 16, one of the student organisers of the march.

Published in Dawn, March 24th, 2019