Tam, left, a member of the Salem Islamic Center, stands with her granddaughter as Brittany Cox, right, and Cherie MacDougall offer flowers and condolences following a mass shooting at two New Zealand mosques. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Women entering the Salem Islamic Center before Friday’s mid-day prayer greeted each other as they would any other day with “salaam alaikum” – peace be upon you.

But several cried or said they feared coming to services the morning after a man murdered 49 people at two New Zealand mosques. The suspect is a white nationalist who live-streamed portions of the shooting on Facebook and wrote he wanted to “incite violence, retaliation and further divide.”

“No one should be gunned down in the home of the Lord,” said Nefisa Jara, an Ethiopian-American woman who said she’d already been grieving for the people who died in an Ethiopian Airlines crash earlier this week.

She said she woke up fearful and considered not coming to jummah, the Friday midday prayer when Muslims usually gather. But she said hearing the words of God brought her peace.

“If I’m gunned down, I’m gunned down doing something I love,” she said.

Friday’s service had seven women and several dozen men – about half the usual number, said Ali al-Zyout, a member of the mosque.

Al-Zyout said he hopes authorities will look into the gunman’s network and the communities he was part of online, rather than treating him as a lone actor.

“We hope that the government will investigate and find who behind this,” he said. “They should do something to change this perspective and strengthen the relationship between the communities.”

His wife, Tam, was the first woman to arrive for services. She said she cried when she learned what had happened.

“Any place of worship when that happens…it’s a defilement, a betrayal,” she said.

Tam is an Alaska native and member of the Tlinget nation, indigenous to parts of southern Alaska. She was raised Christian but converted to Islam as an adult after moving to Oregon.

She talked with other mosque members about a pattern of mass shootings at houses of worship, including at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh last fall, and First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas in 2017.

At times, the group struggled to keep track of when and where various shootings had occurred.

“Any place of worship is someone’s refuge, sanctuary,” Tam said.

Brittany Cox embraces Tam at the Salem Islamic Center after offering flowers. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Brittany Cox and Cherie MacDougall, who are not members of the mosque, stopped by before services Friday to deliver bouquets of roses to worshipers.

“I just wanted to come and say you have friends,” MacDougall said as Cox embraced a tearful Tam.

The two came in together but said they were strangers and had never been to the mosque.

“We just met in the parking lot,” Cox said.

Tam explained to the women she’d been struggling thinking of her family’s safety. Her children are Christian, but her granddaughter loves coming to the mosque with her.

“Do I bring her? What do I do?” Tam said through tears, gesturing toward the girl, who was playing with blocks on the carpet.

Friday’s sermon, delivered in Arabic and English by a visiting imam from Portland, did not address the massacre. The imam spoke instead of the need for Muslims to be competitive about doing good works in their communities now, while their age and health allow.

“We need to race against time to hasten to do as much good as we can,” he said.

Halima Shaw, who’s been part of the Salem mosque since 2016, said she’d seen police in many U.S. cities, including Eugene, announce they’d be present at mosques for services.

This mass shooting wasn’t the first time the community has had a discussion about what it would do if someone tried to murder people as their mosque.

“The conversations are definitely not easy,” she said.

The fear didn’t lift after prayers were over. Tam said she was still in shock.

But asked how she felt spending time in worship?

“Peaceful,” she said.

Reporter Rachel Alexander: rachel@salemreporter.com or 503-575-1241.

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