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Muslim community prays in fear since Quebec shooting, mosque president says

Mohamed Yangui, president of the Centre culturel islamique de Quebec, is photographed near the mosque.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

The mosque president walked into court, and averted his eyes from the man handcuffed in the prisoners' box who is accused of firing on worshippers after their evening prayers, killing six of them and leaving a community in turmoil.

Mohamed Yangui insisted on attending the court appearance on Thursday of Alexandre Bissonnette, the 27-year-old who faces six counts of first-degree murder in the January shooting at Quebec's Grand Mosque. When Mr. Yangui entered the courtroom, the slightly built Mr. Bissonnette turned his head toward the door and followed Mr. Yangui with his eyes. Mr. Yangui did not return the gaze.

The Muslim community is still scarred from the attack, he said, unsettled by fears that people remain at physical risk in their house of worship.

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"We are terrified," Mr. Yangui said to reporters outside court. "When I go to the mosque these days, I can't pray properly. I always have the feeling there's somebody behind me who will shoot me."

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The court appearance by Mr. Bissonnette was brief – it lasted about six minutes – and took place after intense security procedures requiring visitors to empty their purses and pockets and pass through a metal detector. Mr. Bissonnette, who also faces five counts of attempted murder while using a restricted firearm, changed lawyers and will be represented by a legal-aid team.

The former Laval University political-science student, dressed in a loose black sweatshirt, appeared alert and scanned the public-seating area several times from his glassed-in enclosure.

As the legal process slowly continues, the Muslim community struggles with the shooting's aftermath. Mr. Yangui said one young girl insists on sleeping with the clothing of her father, who was killed in the assault. Worshippers at the mosque are careful to keep their sons close by when they attend prayer services.

The mosque has also formed groups to keep watch while others pray.

Members of the Centre Culturel Islamique de Québec have been in touch at least three times with provincial police, once to report a threatening letter and twice when suspicious men have shown up at the mosque. Mr. Yangui noted that mosque members had spotted Mr. Bissonnette several times before the Jan. 29 shooting.

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"We have become more vigilant," he said.

Mr. Yangui said he hopes the Crown will follow through with terrorism-related charges against Mr. Bissonnette.

"We've got six dead. We've got 17 orphans. We've got six widows. We've got 39 survivors who aren't living their lives normally," Mr. Yangui said. "We've got a very heavy toll."

One man, Aymen Derbali, remains in intensive care with a bullet lodged in the back of his neck, and another man injured in the rampage was readmitted to hospital this week, the mosque president said.

While political figures called the mosque rampage a terrorist act, Mr. Bissonnette has not been charged with terrorism-related offences. Police continue their investigation.

Jean-Félix Charbonneau, a lawyer who is part of a team giving pro-bono legal support to the Muslim cultural centre, says prosecutors have to prove offences meet the legal definition of terrorism to lay such charges. That includes searching for clues from such things as Mr. Bissonnette's computer as well as his social and family life that might offer evidence "related to his intentions," Mr. Charbonneau said.

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The next court date has been set for May 29 to allow the Crown to complete its disclosure of evidence. The Crown said Mr. Bissonnette will not need to be present for his next court date.

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About the Author

Ingrid Peritz has been a Montreal-based correspondent for The Globe and Mail since 1998. Her reporting on the plight of Canadians suffering from the damaging effects of the drug thalidomide helped victims obtain federal compensation and earned The Globe and Mail a National Newspaper Award, Canadian Journalism Foundation award, and the Michener Award for public service. More

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