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In New Zealand, multiple shootings and violence at religious institutions are rare

"Muslims have been in New Zealand for over 100 years. Nothing like that has ever happened," a New Zealand Islamic leader said.
People wait outside a mosque in central Christchurch on Friday after mass shootings that moved the nation's prime minister to call it "one of New Zealand's darkest days."Mark Baker / AP

The shootings at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, on Friday are a relatively rare spasm of gun violence in a nation where the worst incidence of mass violence in modern history killed 13 people.

Authorities confirmed that there were dozens of deaths and that a man had been charged with murder.

"It is clear that this is one of New Zealand's darkest days," Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said.

New Zealand's deadliest peacetime incident of violence since 1900 occurred in November 1990 in Aramoana, a tiny coastal settlement northeast of Dunedin. The perpetrator, identified as David Malcolm Gray, 33, killed 13 people before he was killed by police.

What has come to be known as the Aramoana Massacre began with a prosaic dispute over a neighbor's dog that had strayed onto Gray's property. Police said Gray confronted the neighbor and shot and killed him with a semi-automatic rifle.

He then killed two of his neighbor's daughters and set their house on fire before opening fire indiscriminately in the neighborhood, police said.

After a daylong manhunt, anti-terrorism police tracked down Gray and shot him five times. He died in the ambulance on the way to a hospital.

All told, Gray shot or burned 13 people to death, including a police sergeant. No other similar incident on record has claimed more than eight lives in the the nation's history.

The Aramoana incident led to significant strengthening of the nation's gun laws after 1990, but civilians are still allowed to register firearms after passing background checks and obtaining police licenses. Firearms may not be carried concealed or in public.

Friday's shootings are also believed to have been the first multiple killings involving houses of worship in the country's history. Ardern called the attacks "an extraordinary and unprecedented act of violence."

Posts on social media and the fringe message board 8chan that appeared to indicate prior knowledge of Friday's shootings — not yet confirmed by authorities as being connected — featured anti-Muslim rhetoric and extremist political sentiments.

Muslims made up about 1.1 percent of New Zealand's population of 4.25 million people in census figures published in 2013 (the 2019 census has been delayed), and the Federation of Islamic Associations of New Zealand lists 57 mosques and other Muslim centers across the country.

But the Muslim population has been growing rapidly — having risen by 28 percent since 2006, to 46,149 — and it is expected to have more than doubled to as many as 100,000 by 2030, according to research published in 2017 in The Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs.

"Muslims have been in New Zealand for over 100 years. Nothing like that has ever happened," Mustafa Farouk, president of the Federation of Islamic Associations, said in a telephone interview.

"We go around the world and tell people we live in the most peaceful country in the world," Farouk said, adding: "This will not change our minds about living here."