• Police raised the death toll to 50 after removing victims’ bodies from the crime scenes.
• The police have said that all the evidence points to Brenton Harrison Tarrant being a lone gunman. One other person picked up in the investigation faces charges of inciting racial hatred, and another faces a firearms charge, but police say neither was involved in the attacks.
• Police have shared a provisional list of victims with relatives and are rushing to release bodies to relatives to allow them to observe Muslim burial practices.
• New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says gun laws will be tightened, but details will be discussed at cabinet level Monday.
WELLINGTON — At a city center stadium more accustomed to the raucous cheers of sports fans, tens of thousands of New Zealanders, including Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, gathered quietly in the country’s capital Sunday evening to hear Muslim community leaders pray for peace and togetherness.
Some wore crop tops and friendship bands, others wore hijabs and many had tears in their eyes.
It was a portrait of a nation in shock and mourning after the worst terrorist attack in its modern history, facing an existential crisis about how it will and should respond.
Under debate: a total ban on semiautomatic weapons, a call to open doors to more refugees and even whether an enormously successful rugby team should change its name from the Canterbury Crusaders because of the overtones of religious intolerance.
Earlier, Ardern, who has called the massacre at two mosques one of her nation’s darkest days, reiterated that New Zealand would tighten its gun laws following Friday’s attack in the city of Christchurch, but said details still needed to be decided at cabinet level.
“There will be changes to our guns laws,” Ardern told a news conference. “We will be discussing more detailed policy elements at cabinet tomorrow.”
Ardern said formal identification of the dead was continuing, but a provisional list had been shared, one that would of course have been “devastating” to the families concerned. “They were loved ones, and they were New Zealanders,” she said.
Police raised the death toll to 50. A further 34 people are in Christchurch Hospital, with 12 in critical condition in intensive care, while a 4-year-old girl has been moved to a dedicated children’s hospital in Auckland, where she is also in critical condition.
“As of last night, we were able to take all of the victims from both of those scenes, and in doing so, we have located a further victim,” Mike Bush, New Zealand’s police commissioner, told a news conference.
Avowed neo-Nazi Brenton Harrison Tarrant, a 28-year-old Australian, made his first appearance on court Saturday, flashing what appeared to be a white-power hand signal, as he was escorted into the courtroom. He entered no plea to one count of murder. Officials said he would face additional charges and make another court appearance in April.
Police said evidence so far suggests Tarrant was the lone gunman.
It was the Christchurch’s worst toll of death and injury since a lunchtime earthquake devastated swaths of the city and killed 185 people in 2011.
Harried coroners and pathologists raced to determine official causes of death for the unprecedented number of criminal casualties and release victim’s bodies to their families, as Muslim burial practices require the last rites and rituals to be done as soon as possible.
Bush said a small number of bodies would be released by the coroner’s office on Sunday evening, but the process was not expected to be completed until Wednesday.
“We are aware of the cultural and religious needs, so we are doing that as quickly and sensitively as possible,” he said.
Police named Tarrant as the primary suspect in what was called the deadliest attack in New Zealand history — and one of the worst cases of right-wing terrorism in years — after he allegedly stormed the two houses of worship during midday prayers and shot dozens of huddling and fleeing worshipers while live-streaming the killing over social media with a body-mounted camera.
Two others have been arrested in the course of the investigation into the shootings: 18-year-old Daniel John Burrough, is expected to appear in court Monday and face charges of inciting racial hostility or ill will. Police said Sunday they do not believe he was involved in the shootings.
Another man was charged with a firearms offense but is not believed to be involved in the attacks, while a woman was released without charge. Ardern echoed police in calling these arrests “tangential” to the attacks.
The assault reverberated through the country over the weekend, with shock that such a horrific attack could have happened here mixed with an inchoate desire to somehow make things right again.
In Christchurch, tributes to victims were visible across the city. In Linwood, the site of the second Mosque attack, trees in one street were painted with images of hearts, and occasional posters with messages of solidarity including the Islamic message of peace and greeting: Assalamu Alaikum.
At the corner of Cashel Street and Linwood Avenue, not far from the cordoned-off mosque, a small crowd gathered, mostly silent on an overcast afternoon, around a memorial composed of cards, handmade messages of condolence, and flowers.
Casting her eyes toward the armed police standing watchfully nearby, a woman in her sixties said her grief was deepened by memories of time spent with members of the Afghan community, in particular a Hajji Daoud Nabi, a much-admired elder who helped newly arrived Muslim families but died in the attack, reportedly shielding a friend.
“He was so respected, a lovely man. I’m sorry I don’t have any other words,” she said.
Karishma, 29, a Linwood local from a Hindu family, said she felt fearful for the first time since she arrived in New Zealand three years ago. Speaking beside a group of friends, one of whom was wearing a Hijab, she said: “I had never felt scared before in my life here. It’s a safe country. It’s scary for us now.”
After an initial pledge by Prime Minister Ardern to update the country’s gun control laws, New Zealand Attorney General David Parker said at a vigil Saturday that semiautomatic weapons would be banned. Officials later demurred, saying more debate and analysis would be needed before new laws were adopted.
Neighboring Australia dramatically tightened its gun laws following a massacre at Port Arthur in 1996, making it illegal to have an unregistered firearm, severely restricting automatic and semiautomatic weapons and carrying out a mandatory buyback of hundreds of thousands of weapons.
Researchers at Harvard credited the policy with contributing to sharp falls in firearm homicide and suicide rates in the country.
At a branch of Gun City in Wellington, New Zealand’s capital, two protesters, Michelle Genet and Mary Lochore, held up signs decrying that the shop was open — and selling AR-style rifles — two days after the massacre.
“People should show some respect,” said Lochore, 73. “How hard is it to be closed for the weekend?”
In the store, an American, who declined to give his name, was browsing the selection of semiautomatic weapons. The man, who lives in New Zealand, said he was “not worried” about the potential ban and commented that America was the “best country in the world” because of its gun laws.
The mass killing has prompted a wide debate, including the United States. In his manifesto, the alleged shooter had singled out President Trump as “a symbol of white identity and common purpose,” though also added that the American leader was not an effective “policy maker and leader.”
Speaking on “Fox News Sunday,” acting White House chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney said it was “absurd” to draw a connection with Trump’s statements about immigration and the suspect’s rhetoric. “The president is not a white supremacist,” Mulvaney said.
But Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), one of three Muslim lawmakers serving in the House, said that Trump was the “most powerful man in the world right now” and that he should deliver a message of support to the Muslim community in the wake of the New Zealand attack.
“The fact that we continue to stay silent is what’s going to make us as a country less safe,” Tlaib said on CNN’s ‘State of the Union.”
Prime Minister Ardern promised an examination of why Tarrant had escaped official notice before launching the attack and whether security officials had overlooked warning signs, acknowledging that Tarrant was not on any terrorism “watch list.”
Some security experts have accused New Zealand’s intelligence agencies of failing to take adequate precautions against white supremacist groups.
Muslim community leaders at the vigil and across the country argued that police and intelligence agencies have for years been focused on surveilling their communities for signs of radicalism, but not extremist communities that could be targeting Islamic sites and places of worship.
“How was this not picked up by intelligence agencies?” asked Asif Koya, a former president of the International Muslim Association of New Zealand, who said he had raised the issue with Ardern in a meeting Sunday and requested a commitment that law enforcement agencies will work with Muslim communities, and share any crucial information on security threats.
Ardern confirmed her office was among 30 recipients of an “ideological manifesto with extreme views” sent by Tarrant nine minutes before the attack began, a manifesto she called “deeply disturbing.”
The email was forwarded to the parliamentary security office within two minutes of being received, but police said that by the time they were informed about the emails, the shooting had already begun.
“It did not include a location, it didn’t include specific details,” Ardern said. “The assurance I want to give is: Had it provided details that could have been acted on immediately, it would have been, but there were unfortunately no such details in that email.”
At the Wellington Islamic Center, a mosque and community center, dozens of people streamed in and out of the gates on Sunday, past an armed police officer on guard after Friday’s attack. They dropped off flowers — so many that they had begun streaming down the steps — and cards of support.
A volunteer at the center stopped to thank every one of the visitors — toddlers, elderly women unable to walk unassisted, mixed-race couples and families of every ethnicity — with a hug. One woman, between tears, apologized to the small Muslim woman, sobbing as she said sorry over and over. Children of Somali refugees dropped off white roses, as their parents shed silent tears.
Ardern herself also visited Sunday morning and spoke with Muslim community leaders, including Koya, who said he had also raised the issue of gun control.
“We don’t want to see civilians with military or automatic weapons,” he said. “This is New Zealand, a peaceful country. What happened was an aberration and we want things to be back to normal.”
Koya said he knew at least six victims, and many others who remain in hospital slowly recovering from the bullets that shattered their bones and punctured their organs. Among his friends was Mohsen Mohammad Al-Harbi, a citizen of Saudi Arabia who was also sometimes a imam at the Deans Street mosque. He was 61.
“He was such a strong leader of our community, he would always help us to fundraise whenever we had any events here at the mosque,” Koya said. “It came as a big shock. I’ve realized I could have been of them.”
Tarrant, who had no criminal record, had a registered address in southern New Zealand but lived in the country sporadically. The former fitness trainer led an itinerant lifestyle and traveled extensively, visiting Bulgaria, North Korea and countries with large Muslim populations, including Turkey and Pakistan, officials said.
Tarrant obtained a license in November 2017 for the guns that police say were used in the shootings at the two mosques; he began purchasing the weapons that December, according to officials, and at least some of them had been modified.
Officials canceled sporting events and religious gatherings scheduled to take place in Christchurch over the weekend, including a five-day cricket test match between Bangladesh and New Zealand due to begin Saturday. Some members of the Bangladeshi team narrowly escaped the attack Friday.
There were also calls for the Canterbury Crusaders, a hugely successful rugby team, to change its name after the massacre because of undertones of religious hatred. The club released a statement late Saturday night, saying they were deeply shocked by the tragedy and that the name was “a reflection of the crusading spirit of this community,” not “a religious statement.”
The weapons and clothing used by Tarrant in the attack carried numerous references to the Crusades, when Christian armies from Europe tried to seize the Holy Land from Muslims during the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries.
“In terms of the Crusaders name, we acknowledge and understand the concerns that have been raised,” the club said, according to local media. The club’s logo shows an image of a sword-wielding medieval knight with the emblem of a cross on his chest.
“For us, the Crusaders name is a reflection of the crusading spirit of this community, and certainly not a religious statement. What we stand for is the opposite of what happened in Christchurch yesterday; our crusade is one for peace, unity, inclusiveness and community spirit.”
In Australia, Tarrant’s hometown of Grafton was also struggling to digest the news. On the road into the Town Center, a sign reads: “he does not represent us.” It’s a message the town’s deputy Mayor Jason Kingsley was eager to repeat.
“The individual who carried out the attacks does not represent us nor does he represent the values and beliefs of our wider community,” says 41-year-old Kingsley. “This is an act of an individual and our hearts go out to our brothers and sisters in Christchurch.”
Grafton is home to about 11,000 people, the economic epicenter of the Clarence Valley, less than 400 miles north of Sydney and home to about 50,000 people. It is a town that has fallen on hard times in the past two decades after many dairy farms went bankrupt and the area’s sugar industry and beef cattle farms struggled after Australia slashed agricultural subsidies.
But Kingsley, the descendant of Indian migrants who has spent his whole life in the Clarence Valley, said he has never heard of any white supremacist, anti-Muslim or anti-immigrant groups operating in the area and has never experienced racism.
“There is no tension between new Australians and long-term residents of the Clarence Valley,” he said. “This is a quiet place, a great place to raise a family. We are a welcoming and inclusive community. We do not share or support racist or extremist views.”
Authorities said Tarrant’s relatives had come forward to assist with their investigation into his past and his path to radicalization, while police moved his mother, English teacher Sharon Tarrant, from her modest home in the rural township of Lawrence to another location to be interviewed, the Sydney-based Sun-Herald reported.
Tarrant’s father, Rodney Tarrant, committed suicide nine years ago at the age of 49, while suffering mesothelioma, a cancer of the lung, the Sunday Telegraph newspaper reported.
A relative told the paper that Tarrant was addicted to video games, including World of Warcraft and Grand Theft Auto, and would rather urinate on the floor than leave his keyboard.
“He had no outside interests other than that,” the paper quoted the unnamed relative saying. “He used to play computer games all day and all night, and they were especially violent ones.”
Other people from the area said Tarrant had a difficult relationship with his mother and was awkward around women. He was a “creep” who would “sleaze on to girls,” a woman who worked with Tarrant in Grafton told the paper. “He was not well liked.”
Stokes reported from Christchurch. Brett Cole in Grafton and Aaron Patrick in Sydney and Shane Harris and Felicia Sonmez in Washington contributed to this report.