US & Canada

Quebec mosque shooting: 'We are from this country'

people pay respects at a make-shift memorial following a vigil held in honour of the victims of a shooting in a Quebec mosque in Quebec City, Quebec January 30, 2017. Image copyright Reuters
Image caption The flag of Algeria hangs at the makeshift memorial in front of the snow

It was a tragedy that reached across oceans.

In southern Tunisia, Aboubaker Thabti's parents could not understand how their son was taken from them in a shooting in a Quebec City mosque.

When he left his home country for Canada with his wife and two children some six years ago, he saw it as a new beginning, not an end.

Instead, he became one of six men who died on Sunday night in Quebec while they were saying prayers.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Hundreds turned out to support the Muslim community

Sabeur Thabti, a family member who called Aboubaker "uncle", said when he first heard of the shooting from his home in the UK, he had not dwelt much on it.

"You hear these things in Syria and Paris and all around the world and… you kind of forget how real it is, until it impacts you in such a close way."

Then the personal connection became clear.

"These are real people, these are not just numbers," he said. "Six people died, but thousands of people are emotionally destroyed by what happened."

Now he is "senseless" with grief.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and his wife, attended the vigil for victims

On Monday, Canadian police charged student Alexandre Bissonnette with six counts of first-degree murder and five counts of attempted murder in connection with the attack.

Another 19 people were injured.

Thousands of people, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard, braved the cold at a vigil near the mosque to lay flowers and candles in the snow.

Quebec City residents called for unity among Quebecers.

It was a balm for the community, which has sometimes felt it bears the brunt of political rhetoric in the province.

Quebec has welcomed thousands of immigrants from Arab countries and other nations but has also struggled with how to accommodate those newcomers into the broader culture.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption "United against Islamophobia" - many signs at the vigil expressed solidarity

The predominantly French-speaking province fiercely protects its linguistic identity and state secularism, and there has been a longstanding debate over "reasonable accommodation" of immigrants and religious minorities.

The six victims came to build a better life in Canada, hailing from Guinea, Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia.

At the suburban home of victim Khaled Belkacemi, a professor at Laval University, family and friends gathered to offer comfort after learning of his death.

His friend Arab Boussaid described the professor as "humble" and "wise" and said he hoped that "his sacrifice was not in vain" and helped bring Quebecers together.

"We are from this country," he said. "We adopted them and they adopted us."

He said it also served as warning to never "banalise" minor acts of intolerance.

"There are early warning signs, a certain xenophobia, intolerance," he said, that can lead to "irreparable" acts.

Image caption Candles and flowers were buried in the snow opposite the mosque

Khalil Belabbas was sitting in his car outside the Assalam halal butcher shop owned by one of the victims, Azzedine Soufiane.

Someone had left a lone bouquet of flowers at the door of the shop, which was closed, the lights out on a Monday mid-afternoon.

Mr Belabbas had come to confirm the news that his friend, a man he prayed with, had been killed in the attack.

Soufiane and his wife were well known and liked in the community, he said, a fact confirmed by a small but steady stream of people coming to the store to confirm the terrible news they had heard was true.

The meat shop owner was also known as an ambassador for the mosque.

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Media captionFrench-speaking immigrants in Montreal face challenges

Mr Belabbas said that there was "a certain distance" between Quebec Muslims and the broader community.

"Islam has become a mark of terrorism," he said. "We understand, but we try to be open, to have community days at the mosque, to be open with people."

He touched on an incident last June, when someone left a severed pig's head outside the mosque's entrance during the month of Ramadan.

Though police did not link it with the shooting, Mr Belabbas said the community felt that message.

But still - "we never, ever thought that there would be an [attack] like this".

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