Just hours after a gunman in New Zealand killed dozens of Muslims attending prayers at a mosque, close to a thousand people in Australia responded by going to Lakemba Mosque in Sydney. Because the attacker is Australian, both Muslims and non-Muslims felt a duty to gather in interfaith unity.
What did they do? Prayed, of course. Prayers of praise, gratitude, love, and forgiveness. One speaker asked God to “help us be peacemakers.” A young woman told the Daily Mail Australia: “It’s more important than ever for us to attend prayers.”
In Canada and Europe, many people also went to local mosques on Friday to offer special prayers on behalf of the victims and their families in the New Zealand city of Christchurch. In a tweet, the country’s famous rugby player, Sonny Bill Williams, wrote that he was sending prayers to all of those affected. He is a Muslim.
In offering these prayers, the political motives of the killer almost did not matter. While the suspect is a proclaimed white supremacist, he probably did not reckon that attacking people in prayer would result in more prayer, especially the kind that helps negate hate and division.
In the past decade, at least 21 of the mass killings around the world have occurred at a place of prayer. Most sites were mosques, targeted by Muslims and non-Muslims. But churches, synagogues, and temples have been hit. In the United States, the names of the houses of worship struck by mass terror are not easy to forget: Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas. Sikh Temple of Wisconsin. Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church of Charleston, South Carolina.
For all religions, prayer is a spiritual resource to dispel fear and affirm love, which helps explain the interfaith response to the Christchurch killings. It is also a way to end the dualistic thinking that divides people into either good or evil.
For the great monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, prayer often starts with that line in the first chapter of the Bible in which God says, “Let us make man in our image according to our likeness.” For people who believe those words are a touchstone for prayer, “then the greatest religious challenge is, ‘Can I see God’s image in someone who is not in my image? Whose color, culture, or class is not mine?’ ,” writes Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi of Britain.
The same question could be asked of the Christchurch killer. Answering such a question does indeed require prayer. Love is universal, but it is in the particulars that people struggle to find it. It helps when they gather in places of prayer, like a mosque. It especially helps after a terrorist attack on one.