By Kevin Dougherty
Image Attribute: Police officers are seen near a mosque after a shooting in Quebec City, January 29, 2017. REUTERS/Mathieu Belanger
QUEBEC CITY (Reuters) - The shooting at a Quebec mosque during Sunday night prays which reportedly killed five people was a "terrorist attack on Muslims", said Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
"We condemn this terrorist attack on Muslims in a center of worship and refuge," Trudeau said in a statement.
Five people were killed after gunmen opened fire in a Quebec City mosque, the mosque's president told reporters on Sunday. A witness told Reuters that up to three gunmen fired on about 40 people inside the Quebec City Islamic Cultural Center.
"Why is this happening here? This is barbaric," said the mosque's president, Mohamed Yangui.
Quebec police said there were many victims and deaths, but did not confirm the death toll. They said two people had been arrested, but there were no immediate details on the suspects.
A witness said a heavily armed police tactical squad was seen entering the three-storey mosque. Police declined to say whether there was a gunman inside the mosque at the time.
Police tweeted later that the situation was under control and that the mosque had been secured and occupants evacuated.
Yangui, who was not inside the mosque when the shooting occurred, said he got frantic calls from people at evening prayers. He did not know how many were injured, saying they had been taken to different hospitals across Quebec City.
"Tonight, Canadians grieve for those killed in a cowardly attack on a mosque in Quebec City. My thoughts are with victims & their families," Trudeau tweeted earlier in the night.
The shooting came on the weekend that Trudeau said Canada would welcome refugees, after U.S. President Donald Trump suspended the U.S. refugee program and temporarily barred citizens from seven Muslim-majority nations from entering the United States on national security grounds.
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said police were providing additional protection for mosques in that city following the Quebec shooting. "All New Yorkers should be vigilant. If you see something, say something," he tweeted.
Canada's federal Liberal legislator Greg Fergus tweeted: "This is an act of terrorism -- the result of years of demonizing Muslims. Words matter and hateful speeches have consequences!"
Image Attribute: An ambulance is parked at the scene of a fatal shooting at the Quebec Islamic Cultural Centre in Quebec City, Canada January 29, 2017. REUTERS/Mathieu Belanger
'NOT SAFE HERE'
Like France, Quebec has struggled at times to reconcile its secular identity with a rising Muslim population, many of them North African emigrants. In June 2016, a pig's head was left on the doorstep of the cultural center.
"We are not safe here," said Mohammed Oudghiri, who normally attends prayers at the mosque in the middle-class, residential area, but not on Sunday.
Oudghiri said he had lived in Quebec for 42 years but was now "very worried" and thinking of moving back to Morocco.
Mass shootings are rare in Canada, which has stricter gun laws than the United States, and news of the shooting sent a shockwave through mosques and community centers throughout the mostly French-language province.
"It's a sad day for all Quebecers and Canadians to see a terrorist attack happen in peaceful Quebec City," said Mohamed Yacoub, co-chairman of an Islamic community center in a Montreal suburb. "I hope itâ€™s an isolated incident."
Incidents of Islamophobia have increased in Quebec in recent years. The face-covering, or niqab, became a big issue in the 2015 Canadian federal election, especially in Quebec, where the vast majority of the population supported a ban on it at citizenship ceremonies.
In 2013, police investigated after a mosque in the Saguenay region of the province was splattered with what was believed to be pig blood. In the neighboring province of Ontario, a mosque was set on fire in 2015, a day after an attack by gunmen and suicide bombers in Paris.
Zebida Bendjeddou, who left the mosque earlier on Sunday evening, said the center had received threats.
"In June, they'd put a pig's head in front of the mosque. But we thought: 'Oh, they're isolated events.' We didn't take it seriously. But tonight, those isolated events, they take on a different scope," she said.
Bendjeddou said she had not yet confirmed the names of those killed, but added: "They're people we know, for sure. People we knew since they were little kids."
Image Attribute: SWAT team police officer walk around a mosque after a shooting in Quebec City, January 29, 2017. REUTERS/Mathieu Belanger
(Reporting by Kevin Dougherty in Quebec City; Additional reporting by Mark Hosenball in Washington, Allison Lampert in Montreal, Andrea Hopkins and David Ljunggren in Ottawa, Anna Mehler Paperny in Toronto and Chris Michaud in New York; Writing by Michael Perry; Editing by Peter Cooney)
(c) 2017 Thomson Reuters