QUEBEC CITY (AP) – 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. 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.
Quebec City court clerk Isabelle Ferland identified Alexandre Bissonnette and Mohamed el Khadir as the suspects. Police later said one of them was just a witness, though they did not say which.
One 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 didn’t give a possible motive for the attack.
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 to directly to the more than 1 million Muslims that live in Canada, saying, “We are with you.”
Trump called Trudeau to express condolences to the Canadian people and to offer any assistance that might be needed, Trudeau’s office said.
The victims were fathers, businessmen, a university professor and others who had gathered for evening prayers, said Mohamed Labidi, the vice-president of the mosque where the attack happened.
“‘It’s a very, very big tragedy for us,” Labidi said through tears. We have a sadness we cannot express.”
Labidi 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, while police responding to the scene and called for backup.
Canada is generally very 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.
“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. The premier and Muslim leaders held hands at a press conference in Quebec City.
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 on 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,” Labeaume said.
Ali Hamadi said he left the mosque a few minutes before the shooting and said 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
Quebec City police spokesman Constable Pierre Poirier said the mosque had been evacuated and the situation was under control.
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.
Associated Press writer Sean Farrell in Montreal contributed to this report. Rob Gillies reported from Toronto.