By Derek Hawkins, Alan Freeman and Ben Guarino
Gunmen attacked a suburban Quebec City mosque as worshipers were finishing their prayers Sunday night, killing six and wounding at least eight.
While mosques in Canada and the U.S. have been the targets of numerous acts of vandalism and other hate crimes in the past few years, the Quebec City attack appears to be the first mass shooting at an Islamic house of worship in North America.
Government officials wasted no time calling it an act of terrorism. A spokeswoman for the Surete du Quebec, the Quebec provincial police, said that two suspects had been arrested who remained unidentified. Authorities provided no possible motive as they took the first steps of their investigation. Police do not believe at this time that others were directly involved in the attack.
One of the suspects was arrested 14 miles east of the mosque along the shore of the St. Lawrence River on the approach to a bridge leading to the Island of Orleans. The bridge was closed by authorities. The second suspect was arrested close to the mosque, according to police.
Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard called the shooting a “terrorist act,” saying in an early morning news conference that he reacted with “horror and incredulity” when he learned about the attack. He promised increased police protection for mosques and Islamic centers across the province of Quebec.
“We are with you,” Couillard said, addressing the province’s Muslim community. “You are at home. You are Quebecois.”
Witnesses said at least two gunmen in hoods or ski masks opened fire on congregants at the Quebec Islamic Cultural Center. Police said the six people killed were between 35 and 70 years old. In addition to the eight injured worshipers, a further 39 people escaped without injury, indicating that there were 53 people at the mosque when the gunmen hit. Authorities did not provide information on the type of firearms used in the shooting.
In the absence of a known motive or of identities, it was impossible to draw any connection early in the probe between the attack and the general turmoil surrounding refugees from the strife in the Middle East or to violence between Muslims in countries like Iraq and Syria.
The attack comes at a time when reports of hate crimes against Muslims in Canada and the United States have surged, ranging from vandalism to assault to arson at their places of worship.
Officials at the Quebec Islamic Cultural Center urged followers not to spread rumors about the attack until more information was made public.
“All our thoughts are with the children, whom we must tell about the death of their fathers,” the mosque said on its Facebook page. “May Allah give them patience and endurance.”
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called the shooting a “terrorist attack on Muslims” and said Canadians grieved for the victims.
“It is heart-wrenching to see such senseless violence,” he said in a statement. “Diversity is our strength, and religious tolerance is a value that we, as Canadians, hold dear.”
Police said a joint task force of terrorist specialists from the Quebec provincial police, the City of Montreal Police and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police was being deployed to the site, with explosives experts and canine teams among them.
The Quebec Islamic Cultural Center is located near Laval University, which has a large community of international students, many from French-speaking Africa and the Maghreb.
The mosque, one of several in the area, was the target of an apparent hate crime last June, when someone left a bloody pig’s head wrapped in cellophane at the front door, along with a note reading “Bonne appétit,” as the Washington Post has reported. The consumption of pork is banned by Islam. Concerned about that kind of incident, the mosque installed several closed-circuit cameras around the building.
The shooting is a particular shock for Quebec City, a quiet white-collar city that reported just two murders in all of 2015. The metropolitan area has about 806,000 people.
Samer Majzoub, the president of the Canadian Muslim Forum, a Muslim advocacy group in Quebec, said he knows people who attend the Quebec City mosque, but that he and other area Muslim leaders were still trying frantically to find out who had been shot.
“People that we know, we are not sure if they’re alive right now,” he told The Post. “It is shocking. It never came to our mind that we’d have a terrorist act as such, especially in Canada.”
Majzoub said Canada has seen increasing anti-Muslim hostility over the past year, but still nowhere near the level witnessed in the United States and Europe. He said the area near the mosque has appeared to be particularly prone to anti-Muslim sentiments.
“This masjid has witnessed a lot of issues before – threats and vandalism, and some Islamophobic graffiti,” he said, using the Arabic word for mosque. “It’s not the first time.”
Majzoub said the mosque has a small congregation of about a hundred people and attracts a lot of students because it’s near a university. He said many of its attendees are of North African descent.
“We never thought it could happen,” he said. “It was a slaughter.”
The Washington Post’s Abigail Hauslohner contributed to this report.