Dozens of Muslims kneel in front of San Fernando Cathedral in Main Plaza for their post-sunset prayer as equality flags are flown a gathered crowd forms a circle behind them for protection.
Dozens of Muslims kneel in front of San Fernando Cathedral in Main Plaza for their post-sunset prayer as equality flags fly and a gathered crowd forms a circle behind them for protection during a solidarity response to the New Zealand mosque shooting. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Dozens of San Antonio Muslims knelt on Main Plaza Saturday for their post-sunset prayer, as a gathered crowd formed a circle behind them for protection.

The Maghrib prayer concluded a community vigil that brought people from all faiths together in downtown San Antonio to show solidarity with the Muslim community of New Zealand, which continues to heal after a gunman opened fire on two Christchurch mosques on March 15. New Zealand law enforcement officials have charged a 28-year-old Australian citizen in the attack, which left 50 dead and 50 more injured.

Leaders from various local religious organizations joined elected officials and other dignitaries who spoke Saturday at the vigil. Many of them remarked on palpability of the tragedy, though it occurred on the other side of the world.

But echoes of the terror attack were heard in San Antonio, where teachers of one of the survivors of the Christchurch shootings live, said Imam Beytullah Colak, who video conferenced with the survivor via his phone at the beginning of the vigil.

The man, identified only as Serdar R. to protect his privacy, recounted the courageous scenes he saw as he hid behind a partition in the mosque. He said he does not remember anyone screaming; rather, the people inside the mosque remained composed, he said, as they recited verses from the Quran.

“They were all strong people,” Serdar R. said.

Imam Beytullah Colak holds up his phone as survivor Serdar D. speaks of his experience.
Imam Beytullah Colak holds up his phone as survivor Serdar D. descirbes his experience from New Zealand. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Colak heard about Serdar R. through his activities in the Gülen, or hizmet, movement, an Islamic social movement emanating from Turkey. The Turkish instructors based in San Antonio teach Serdar math and science, Colak said.

Sakib Shaikh, with the Muslim Children Education Civic Center, said the Christchurch shootings conjured such a visceral feeling in him that he felt as though they happened in San Antonio. He talked about wiping out the disease that is Islamophobia.

The wave of shootings in religious gathering places – the Charleston church shooting in 2015, the Sutherland Springs church shooting in 2017, and the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting last year – continues to roil the country with fear that no ground is too hallowed for mass murder. It’s a trend that policymakers such as U.S. Rep. Joaquín Castro (D-San Antonio) said must be stopped with gun control.

U.S. Air Force veteran Gina Ortiz Jones, a Democrat who narrowly lost her race last year for U.S. Rep. Will Hurd’s House District 23 seat, spoke about the vulnerability felt by people of faith in the wake of these tragedies. Ortiz Jones, who worships at the Filipino-American parish Santo Niño Catholic Church, said the atrocity could have happened anywhere.

“I expect to be safe” in her place of worship, she said. “I do not expect to be gunned down.” She urged the crowd to take action to speak out against religious bigotry, racism, and xenophobia. “We can only be safe tomorrow if we are willing to show strength today.”

Serdar R. told those gathered at Main Plaza, with whom he is separated by about 8,000 miles and 18 hours in time difference, that although the mosque attacks were tragic, he has been encouraged by the show of support from people around the world. He likened the incident to fertilizer.

“All the flowers will grow on such fertile soil,” he said. “So I hope that incident will unite us, will bring us together no matter what the religion, the background, the culture, the color.”

JJ Velasquez

JJ Velasquez

JJ Velasquez is a columnist at the San Antonio Report. A former reporter and editor at the SA Report, he currently works as a project manager for New York City-based Advance Local.

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Bonnie Arbittier

Bonnie Arbittier is a photojournalist raised in upstate New York and rural Pennsylvania. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Pennsylvania in Fine Arts and French. After completing...