How New Zealand attack may impact Pittsburgh’s Muslim community
As a Muslim living in Pittsburgh, Mohammad Sajjad struggled to put into words what he felt about yet another place of worship becoming the scene of a mass shooting.
“It’s horrific that someone would go into a mosque and be able to kill almost fifty people, possibly more,” Sajjad, program director of the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh, said Friday. “It’s hard to digest that because that’s a lot of people and these are our Muslim brothers and sisters. First and foremost we have concern for the people and the families that have been affected by this. It makes me concerned about Muslims all over the world.”
Forty-nine people were killed in the attack at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, during Friday prayer. A live video of the attack was streamed by a gunman on Facebook.
Officials at the Oakland center, including director Wasi Mohamed, coordinated increased police presence at the center. Pittsburgh police Chief Scott Schubert planned to have officers stationed at both entrances to the Islamic Center during Friday prayer services.
“You never know who else is out there that has these hateful feelings,” Sajjad said.
He said the idea that an attack by a gunman could happen anywhere was driven home months before the tragic events unfolded in New Zealand. Last October, a man attacked the Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill, opened fire and killed 11 people.
“It happened at the Tree of Life synagogue. When that happened, there was a feeling that this could happen to us. What happened in New Zealand adds another layer of worry and concern. A Muslim congregation was targeted, and the same thing could happen to us,” said Sajjad.
Tree of Life, Dor Hadash and New Light congregations, which are all housed in the Tree of Life building, pledged their support to the Muslim community.
“We stand beside our Muslim brothers and sisters and mourn alongside the families and friends who have lost loved ones in this unconscionable act of violence,” the congregations said in a statement. “We will continue to work toward a day when all people on this planet can live together in peace and mutual respect.”
In addition to Friday prayer, the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh offers five daily prayer services and has its doors open so people can come and go freely to worship. Officials want to keep the center open so people can come and pray whenever they would like to, Sajjad said. But he admits the massacre in New Zealand may force them to reconsider.
“During Friday prayer, we have anywhere from five to seven hundred people attend and it’s very open inside the prayer hall, and the way our service is conducted, men and women sit on the ground,” said Sajjad. “It’s a very open space, and there aren’t many places where you can protect yourself because it’s so open. So, it’s hard to navigate a policy where you are welcoming everyone and having an open-door policy and maintaining a level of regulation.”
Sajjad said he worried about the impact of the New Zealand attack on the future of the Islamic Center.
“It makes me worried about where we are headed. How safe are we? Any Muslim, how safe are we going to be?” said Sajjad. ”When you go to a Friday prayer service, it should be a time of peace and comfort. But for a lot of people, now it’s going to be a time of worry.”
Meanwhile, messages of support have been emailed to the ICP since early this morning, Sajjad said.
“I always feel like people in Pittsburgh have our backs and we have theirs.”
Friday afternoon, the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinical Association sent out a statement of support.
“We stand in solidarity with our Muslim brothers and sisters in Christchurch, New Zealand, those around the world, and those who stood by us here in Pittsburgh,” the statement said. “Violence committed at the time of prayer is nothing short of an attack on the soul of a people. Gun violence is a plague that impacts lives around the world.”
Paul Guggenheimer is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Paul at 724-226-7706 or [email protected].