By Nick Perry
CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand (AP) — The scars from the nine bullets the gunman fired into Temel Atacocugu run down his left side like knotty rope. But it’s the recurring mental images from that day at the mosque that he often finds hardest to cope with: The gunman’s face. The puff of smoke from his gun. The worshippers falling as they clamored to escape.
After coming so close to dying nearly five months ago, Atacocugu feels he has been “reborn.” And this week he plans to express his gratitude to God for being given the chance for a new life when he participates in the hajj, the holy Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca.
The 44-year-old kebab shop co-owner is among 200 survivors and victims’ relatives from the Christchurch mosque shootings who are traveling to Saudi Arabia as guests of King Salman. The king is paying for their airfare, accommodation and travel costs, a bill that will run well over $1 million. The group will also travel to holy sites in Medina.
All able-bodied Muslims are required to perform the hajj once in their lifetime, with many saving for years to make the journey. The annual pilgrimage draws nearly 2 million Muslims from around the world to Mecca and sites around it to perform a series of ancient rites and prayers meant to cleanse the soul of past sins and bring people closer to God.
The Saudi ambassador to New Zealand, Abdulrahman Al Suhaibani, says King Salman was shocked by the March 15 attacks at two mosques in which an Australian white supremacist has been charged with killing 51 people.
The Christchurch shootings have been cited as inspiration by other white supremacists, most recently in an attack at a Walmart store in El Paso, Texas, that left at least 22 people dead.