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'We need to run': Survivor recalls Quebec mosque attack

Ahmed Ech-Chahedy first thought he was hearing fireworks.

The father of six had just finished evening prayers at the Islamic Cultural Centre in Quebec, Canada, and was chatting with his eight-year-old son and two of his son's friends.

It was January 29, 2017, and Ech-Chahedy's back was to the main door of the mosque.

He heard a burst of sound, and, moments later, caught a glimpse of a man with dark hair walking through the entryway. The man was carrying a gun.

Ech-Chahedy said, 'Dad, he wants to kill you,'" Ech-Chahedy recalled.

"I turned towards the children ... and I told them, 'We need to run.' But they didn't go. They couldn't move. My reflex was to get them out."

He managed to get the children to safety, seeking refuge in a nearby restaurant.

When the gunman finished shooting, six Muslim worshippers were dead, more than a dozen people were injured and Ech-Chahedy and other members of the Muslim community in Quebec City were in shock.

'More mistrust'

In the aftermath of the deadly attack, Quebec and Canadian politicians, community groups and faith leaders condemned the violence, with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau calling it a "terrorist attack on Muslims in a centre of worship and refuge".

Alexandre Bissonnette, a university student in Quebec City known for his far-right views, was charged with six counts of first-degree murder and six counts of attempted murder. He was not, however, charged with "terrorism".

One year after the shooting, officials in Quebec City warn about an uptick in Islamophobia and anti-Muslim hate crimes in the provincial capital.

The shooting killed six men and injured more than a dozen others [Mathieu Belanger/Reuters]

At least 42 hateful incidents against Muslims were reported to Quebec City police in 2017, the city's police chief, Robert Pigeon, told local reporters in December. That is twice the number of anti-Muslim incidents that were reported a year earlier, Pigeon said.

For Mohamed Labidi, president of the mosque, it is clear that "there is a problem in the city of Quebec".

Over the last year, the mosque has received new threats, far-right groups have mobilised with greater visibility, and plans to build a Muslim cemetery incited a hateful response from some residents in the region, he explained.

Labidi also reported that his car was set on fire in August of last year.

Quebec also passed a controversial law that banned face coverings when giving and receiving public services. Parts of the law were suspended last month after a lawsuit arguing the ban was unconstitutional was filed by the National Council of Canadian Muslims, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, and Warda Naili, a Muslim woman who wears a full-face veil, also known as a niqab.

"When it comes to the Muslim community in Quebec, there is more mistrust and a feeling of fear," Labidi told Al Jazeera. "Several extreme right-wing organisations are very active in Quebec City.

"They're afraid that Quebec will become like Montreal, multicultural like Montreal."

Nationwide vigils

Several days of commemorations have been organised to mark the one-year anniversary of the attack. A vigil will was held in Quebec City, while other events are being organised across Canada.

A spokesperson for Islamic Relief Canada, a nationwide Muslim charity, said it was important to mark the anniversary by supporting the families of the six men who were killed.

"A source of inspiration is the strength of the survivors, the six women and 17 children who lost husbands and fathers in the space of a few terrifying seconds a year ago," spokesperson Reyhana Patel said in a statement.

"The slow recovery of their lives and sense of security - alongside their emphatic rejection of any further hatred and division - is, quite simply, the most compelling response to the tragic shooting of last year," she said.

Labidi said that Muslim organisations have worked hard to highlight the dangers Islamophobia can pose since the attack, and the renewed vigour with which individuals are fighting all forms of bigotry should be seen as the silver lining to the tragedy.

"Sometimes we're hit by the types of tragedies that we lived through in Quebec City ... and we can draw lessons from it and move forward to improve the situation Muslims are living in, both in Quebec and Canada," he said.

"Sometimes positive things can come out of pain."

(Source: Al Jazeera)

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