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Saudi king hosts 200 from Christchurch shootings for Hajj

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — Aya Al-Umari said she feels like her brother will be accompanying her and will constantly be in her prayers when she travels to Mecca next month to take part in the annual Hajj pilgrimage.

Al-Umari is one of 200 relatives and survivors from the Christchurch mosque shootings who are traveling to Saudi Arabia as guests of King Salman. The king is paying for all travel and accommodation costs, a bill likely to run to over $1 million.

The Saudi ambassador to New Zealand, Abdulrahman Al Suhaibani, on Friday said farewell to the pilgrims at the Al Noor mosque, one of two mosques where a gunman killed 51 people in March. Al-Umari said the ambassador handed out special clothes for the men to wear during the pilgrimage and told the women they would be given kits when they arrived in Saudi Arabia.

Al-Umari's 35-year-old brother Hussein was among those killed. She said it's an honor that King Salman is sponsoring the trips, a fact reinforced in her visa documents stating that she's traveling as a guest of the custodian of the two holy mosques.

"It came at such a perfect time and it helps with the grief as well," Al-Umari said. "It's such a humbling thing to be given. I always had, personally, as a goal before I get married, to Hajj. Now it's been given to us on a plate. I feel it's a blessing from Hussein that is looking after me and my family."

She said she was initially nervous about the trip, and won't know many of the others going because so many of her friends were killed during the March massacre. "It's a tough journey to do, Hajj," she said. "There are quite a number of factors. There's lots of walking, and the weather — it's quite hot. But these are all surface things, and the holiness of the whole pilgrimage will overtake the toughness of the journey."

The Hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam, and all able-bodied Muslims are required to perform it once in their lifetime. During the five-day pilgrimage, millions of Muslims circle Islam's most sacred site, the cube-shaped Kaaba, and take part in rituals intended to bring about greater humility and unity.

Al-Umari said she travelled with her brother and parents to Mecca as a child for the umrah, or what she describes as the mini-Hajj. Lateef Alabi, the imam of the Linwood mosque where worshippers were also killed during the March attacks, said it would be his third trip to Mecca but his first time for the Hajj. He said he was delighted with how first the New Zealand government and now the Saudi king were doing what they could to help the Muslim community of Christchurch heal.

"It's putting good in the place of bad," he said. "Over time, people will get over the pain. But it will take years, and they will never see their family members again." Brenton Tarrant, a 28-year-old Australian white supremacist, has pleaded not guilty to terrorism, murder and attempted murder charges following the March attacks. He remains in jail ahead of his trial, which has been scheduled for next May.

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