WELLINGTON, March 17 (Reuters) - All Blacks captain Kieran Read has urged New Zealanders to reject bigotry and support the country’s Muslim community after a mass shooting at two mosques in Christchurch on Friday.
The death toll from the shooting, carried out by a suspected white supremacist and described by New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern as the country’s “darkest day”, rose to 50 on Sunday.
Read, who was caught up in the city centre lockdown at his daughters’ school on Friday as police searched for the gunman, expressed his support for the victims, their families and all of New Zealand’s small Muslim community.
“That this hate filled atrocity has happened in our back yard is beyond words,” Read wrote on his Instagram account.
“My heart goes out to the victims and their families, our Muslim community and the people of Christchurch.
“Our nation is experiencing a great loss of innocence in the face of all that happened. Bigotry and intolerance has no place here in Aotearoa (New Zealand). This is not who we are.
“Our strength lies in our diversity and while acts such as this are orchestrated in an attempt to divide us, love and unity will always prevail.”
The captain of the All Blacks, the most successful team in world rugby, is typically almost universally respected in the rugby-mad country.
Read also plays for the Christchurch-based Canterbury Crusaders, whose Super Rugby match against the Otago Highlanders in Dunedin on Saturday was cancelled after discussions between the teams and police.
The Crusaders adopted their name 23 years ago when rugby went professional but questions have been raised over its associations with the medieval religious wars between Christians and Muslims since the mosque attacks.
The franchise, which has won a record nine Super Rugby titles, issued a statement late on Saturday defending the name.
“We acknowledge and understand the concerns that have been raised,” it read.
“For us, the Crusaders name is a reflection of the crusading spirit of this community, and certainly not a religious statement.
“What we stand for is the opposite of what happened in Christchurch ... our crusade is one for peace, unity, inclusiveness and community spirit.
“This team and the wider organisation are united with our community in standing against such abhorrent acts ... and in standing in support of our Muslim community.”
Read’s All Blacks team mate TJ Perenara also urged his compatriots to think about New Zealand’s Muslim community after witnessing the wider impact of the attacks on Saturday.
“I walked through the airport and saw Muslim people going about their day in fear, including one woman that I and a couple of others sat with while she cried,” the scrumhalf wrote on Instagram.
“I thought about how they were in fear as their community has been attacked ... at what point do they get to rest? Why is everyone else able to go about their day?
“Why does the responsibility for such devastating actions by individuals get placed on entire communities in some cases but not others?
“Once we have had time to grieve, it might be time for some uncomfortable conversations.
“To our Muslim brothers and sisters ... I am so sorry this happened to you here. You should have been safe here, you should be safe everywhere. My heart is so heavy.”
The third cricket test between New Zealand and Bangladesh that was due to start in Christchurch on Saturday was also cancelled after the tourists narrowly avoided being caught up in the shooting. (Reporting by Greg Stutchbury; Editing by Nick Mulvenney)