Three years after a deadly mosque shooting claimed six lives in Quebec City, community members said Wednesday the anniversary presents a chance to highlight lingering problems of Islamophobia and hatred.
One of the survivors, Ahmed Cheddadi, said the mosque attack was a horrifying event that shocked Quebec society and should spur a move to eliminate discrimination.
“We are here to denounce this act, barbaric and inhuman, that took place in our democratic, secular country, where the rights of people and liberty of religion are guaranteed by the Constitution,” Cheddadi said at a news conference, calling for an inclusive Quebec where love triumphs over hate and racism is defeated.
Choking back tears, Cheddadi said everyone has a moral responsibility to come together.
“We will never accept that days like Jan. 29, 2017 ever happen again, in a mosque, in a church or in a synagogue,” he said.
The Quebec Islamic Cultural Centre where the killings occurred opened its doors to the community in the afternoon, with a dinner to follow at St-Mathieu Church that will include speeches from politicians, survivors and gun control advocates.
The mosque shooting left six men dead: Mamadou Tanou Barry, 42, Abdelkrim Hassane, 41, Khaled Belkacemi, 60, Aboubaker Thabti, 44, Azzeddine Soufiane, 57, and Ibrahima Barry, 39.
They left behind their wives and 17 children between them, and several other worshippers were injured when a gunman opened fire as evening prayers drew to a close.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau acknowledged the anniversary by calling on Canadians to honour the memory of the victims by fighting Islamophobia and other forms of hatred and discrimination.
“Today, we mourn those who were senselessly killed, and suffered at the hands of ignorance, Islamophobia, and racism,” Trudeau said in a statement.
“We share the pain of their children, spouses, friends, and neighbours, who were robbed of their loved ones far too soon. Our thoughts are also with those injured, whose lives forever changed after this brutal and inhumane attack.”
Boufeldja Benabdallah, president of the mosque, said the provincial government hasn’t done enough to help restore bridges with the Muslim community, speaking of a fractured Quebec society where minorities do not feel protected.
He invoked “the responsibility of legislators to adopt laws to protect citizens, whatever their origins or their beliefs,” adding that the goal should be laws and programs “designed by the government to ensure society is balanced and not unbalanced as it is today.”
In a recent interview, Benabdallah said that despite some recent progress, including the creation of the region’s first Islamic cemetery and a million-dollar project to enlarge and secure the mosque, the province’s controversial secularism law casts a cloud.
The law, known as Bill 21, bans some civil servants from wearing religious symbols at work — something Benabdallah said targets Muslims in particular.
“Once again, we feel in the minority and targeted, especially the Muslim woman who finds herself penalized,” Benabdallah said in the interview, calling the legislation a significant setback.
Premier François Legault, whose government introduced Bill 21, told reporters he disagrees.
“I think the opposite: Bill 21 is putting a framework to make sure we don’t have extremes in Quebec, including racism,” said Legault, who is scheduled to speak at the evening memorial dinner. He said the law, which prohibits some public servants from wearing religious symbols, accounts for just one per cent of jobs.
“I think that it’s a fair deal, a good compromise, a moderate law, it’s less than what we have in many European countries,” the premier added.
The group organizing the Wednesday events urged Quebec City residents to participate in large numbers — calling the grim occasion a chance to come together and affirm a desire to build an open and inclusive community.
Sébastien Bouchard, one of the organizers, said the Jan. 29 event falls within the context of the broader issue of Islamophobia.
“That it exists in Quebec doesn’t mean that everyone is Islamophobic,” Bouchard said. “But it exists, it must be named, understood and denounced.”
Alexandre Bissonnette pleaded guilty to the killings and last year was sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole for 40 years — a sentence that was the subject of appeals by both the Crown and defence during a hearing at the Quebec Court of Appeal Monday.