The history of Saudi involvement goes back to when radical Islamists Al Haramain were first discussing the setup of a mosque in Christchurch, as per this 2003 investigation.
There are no Islamic organisations in Saudi-Arabia outside the control of the Saudi government. The connections with Saudi family may also explain why some think the Chch shooting was orchestrated by Israel.
Saudi Arabia’s King Salman.
The Saudi ambassador to New Zealand, Abdulrahman Al Suhaibani, says King Salman was shocked by the March 15 attacks at two mosques in which an Australian white supremacist has been charged with killing 51 people.
Each year, the king invites several hundred people to perform the hajj as his own guests, often selecting those most touched by tragedy that year. Al Suhaibani said this is the first time the king has invited anyone from New Zealand on his annual program to help get people to the hajj who otherwise may struggle to make it.
Two weeks ago, the ambassador travelled to Christchurch to hand out the simple white garments the male pilgrims will wear. The terry cloth garments worn by men are meant to strip pilgrims down of adornment and symbolise equality of mankind before God.
“It’s a wonderful time and this is a golden chance for people to get spiritual elevation,” says Gamal Fouda, the imam at the Al Noor mosque, one of the two mosques that were attacked.
Fouda, who also survived the shootings, is travelling with the group as a spiritual leader. He says that while all Muslims want to do the hajj, many tend to delay their trips due to the expense, especially from distant New Zealand.
Fouda says the memories of the shooting remain fresh in everybody’s minds and his mosque hasn’t yet returned to normal.
“The most important thing is that the New Zealand community, including Muslims, they stood together against hate,” Fouda says. “And we are still saying that hate is not going to divide us. We will continue to love each other.”
Atacocugu says he was feeling good on March 15 when he entered the Al Noor mosque for Friday prayers after finishing a final session with an acupuncturist, who was treating him for a sports injury.
When he saw the gunman walk into the mosque, he thought at first he was a police officer because of his paramilitary clothing. Then the man started shooting and Atacocugu found himself looking right at him as he fired a bullet into Atacocugu’s mouth, shattering his jaw.
“And then I said, ‘Oh my God, I am dying’. When I see he’s shooting, when I see the smoke, I said, ‘Yeah, I’m dying.’ That’s the first thought,” Atacocugu says.
After falling to the floor, his left arm ended up protecting his vital organs as the gunman continued firing bullets into him.
Recovering at the Christchurch Hospital after the shooting, Atacocugu couldn’t eat for a week and couldn’t walk for three weeks. But after several surgeries, he’s now able to walk unassisted and get some use from his left hand. He has more surgeries ahead and is being helped in Saudi Arabia by his 21-year-old nephew, who is travelling with him.
Another of those travelling to the hajj is 33-year-old Aya Al-Umari, whose brother Hussein, 35, was among those killed at the Al Noor mosque.
“We had a very typical sibling relationship,” she says. “So you have your nagging elder brother, nagging little sister. But at the end of the day you love each other, even though you don’t verbally say it. But you just telepathically know that.”
She says witnesses and video taken by the gunman indicate her brother stood up to the attacker, allowing others to escape.
“So he fought to the very last minute,” she says. “And this is Hussein, in his nature. He’s always the type of person who would want to see if there is danger, he’d face it, he wouldn’t escape from it.”
When visiting Mecca, Al-Umari says, she’ll pray for her parents and herself to have the patience to cope with the loss of Hussein. She also plans to pray for the other families from her mosque who lost loved ones. And she says she feels her brother will be with her in Saudi Arabia.
“I will carry his presence with me the whole time when I’m in Mecca,” Al-Umari says. “He is with us every day. But in the journey, I will feel like he will accompany me.”
Al-Umari says she wants to return to the hajj another year. “I will do my level best to make sure I fulfill my duty first, and then I will do it on his behalf next time,” she says.