BY TRACEY LINDEMAN AND ROB GILLIES
A shooting at a Quebec City mosque during evening prayers left six people dead in an attack that Canada’s prime minister called an act of terrorism against Muslims. Police initially arrested two men but later said just one remains a suspect.
More than 50 people were at the Quebec Islamic Cultural Centre when the shooting erupted Sunday night. In addition to the six who died, five were in critical condition and 12 others suffered minor injuries, University of Quebec Hospital Centre spokeswoman Genevieve Dupuis said Monday. The dead ranged in age from 35 to 65.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard both characterized the attack as a terrorist act, which came amid heightened tensions worldwide over President Donald Trump’s travel ban on several Muslim countries.
Trudeau said in Parliament the victims were targeted simply because of their religion and spoke directly to the more than 1 million Muslims who live in Canada, saying, “We are with you.”
“Thirty-six million hearts are breaking with yours,” Trudeau said. “Know that we value you.”
Quebec City court clerk Isabelle Ferland identified the suspects as Alexandre Bissonnette and Mohamed el Khadir, but police later said one of them was just a witness, though they did not say which one.
One man was arrested at the scene and another nearby, in his car on a bridge near d’Orleans, where he called 911 to say he wanted to cooperate with police. Police said they did not believe there were other suspects but were investigating.
Police did not give a motive for the attack.
Trump called Trudeau to express condolences to the Canadian people and to offer any assistance that might be needed. The White House used the attack on Muslims as an example of why Trump’s policies are needed.
“We condemn this attack in the strongest possible terms. It’s a terrible reminder of why we must remain vigilant and why the president is taking steps to be pro-active, rather than reactive when it comes to our nation’s safety and security,” White House spokesman Sean Spicer said.
The victims were businessmen, a university professor and others who had gathered for evening prayers, said Mohamed Labidi, the vice president of the mosque.
“‘It’s a very, very big tragedy for us,” Labidi said tearfully. “We have a sadness we cannot express.”
He said the victims were shot in the back.
“Security at our mosque was our major, major concern,” he said. “But we were caught off guard.”
The shooting took place just before 8 p.m. Sunday. Witnesses described chaos as worshippers scrambled to find friends and loved ones, as police responding to the scene called for backup.
Canada is generally welcoming toward immigrants and all religions, but the French-speaking province of Quebec has had a long-simmering debate about race and religious accommodation. The previous separatist government of the province called for a ban on ostentatious religious symbols, such as the hijab, in public institutions.
Couillard said he would “not go there” when asked if he blamed rhetoric in in the U.S. for the attack.
“Quebec is a good, generally loving society, but we have these devils as other societies have. We have to recognize that and fight them,” Couillard said at a news conference in Quebec City at which he held hands with Muslim leaders.
In the summer of 2016 a pig’s head was left on the doorstep of the Quebec Islamic Cultural Centre in the middle of Ramadan, when Muslims fast from dawn to sunset. Practicing Muslims do not eat pork.
“The Muslim community was the target of this murderous attack,” Couillard said. He said solidarity rallies would be held across Quebec later Monday.
Quebec City Mayor Regis Labeaume, appearing shaken, said: “No person should have to pay with their life, for their race, their color, their sexual orientation or their religious beliefs.”
Worshipper Ali Hamadi said he left the mosque a few minutes before the shooting and a friend, Abdelkrim Hassen, was killed. He said Hassen, who worked in information technology for the government, had three daughters and a wife, whom he had to notify of the death.
Majdi Dridi of the Muslim Association of Canada said he knew two of the victims. One was a work colleague who was a father of three little girls, he said.
“I don’t know what to say, I just hope that his family and his children can have the patience to accept what happened,” Dridi said
Trudeau had earlier reacted to Trump’s visa ban for people from some Muslim-majority countries by tweeting Saturday: “To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength #WelcomeToCanada.”
Trudeau also posted a picture of himself greeting a Syrian child at Toronto’s airport in late 2015. Trudeau oversaw the arrival of more than 39,000 Syrian refugees soon after he was elected.
The mayor of Gatineau, Quebec, near Canada’s capital of Ottawa, said there would be an increased police presence at mosques around his city following the attack. The New York Police Department also said it was stepping up patrols at mosques and other houses of worship.
Suspect is a Trump and Le Pen fan
The suspect in the deadly attack on a Quebec City mosque is Alexandre Bissonnette who reportedly was known in the city’s activist circles as a right-wing troll who frequently took anti-foreigner and anti-feminist positions and stood up for U.S. President Donald Trump.
Bissonnette, 27, a student at Laval University who lived on a quiet crescent in the Cap-Rouge suburb of Quebec City, was expected in court Monday to face murder charges for the shooting that killed six people and wounded 19 others.
Police initially arrested Mohamed el Khadir whom they considered a second suspect but they later backtracked, saying he was a witness.
Bissonnette’s online profile and school friendships revealed little interest in extremist politics until last March when French nationalist leader Marine Le Pen visited Quebec City and inspired Mr. Bissonnette to vocal extreme online activism, according to people who clashed with him.
Vincent Boissoneault, a student in international relations at Laval University, grew up with Bissonnette and was friends with him on Facebook. He said they frequently clashed on politics when Bissonnette attacked refugees or expressed support for Ms. Le Pen or Mr. Trump.
“I can tell you he was certainly no Muslim convert. I wrote him off as a xenophobe. I didn’t even think of him as totally racist, but he was enthralled by a borderline racist nationalist movement,” Mr. Boissoneault said.
© 2017 The Associated Press.