AFP Christchurch, New Zealand
Mar 20, 2019, 07.14 AM
Hundreds of mourners gathered in a Christchurch cemetery on Wednesday for the first funerals of those killed in the twin mosque massacre as New Zealanders braced for days of emotional farewells following the mass slayings.
An Australian white supremacist gunman shot down 50 Muslim worshippers at two mosques in the southern city of Christchurch last Friday in a killing spree he broadcast live.
On Wednesday morning, hundreds of mostly Muslim mourners gathered at a cemetery not far from Linwood Mosque, the second of the two places of worship targeted.
They hugged and embraced each other, milling under a large marquee next to rows of freshly dug graves.
Among those in attendance was Abdul Aziz, an Afghan refugee who bravely confronted the gunman at Linwood Mosque. He was hugged by many mourners.
Council officials did not release the names of who was being buried but some of those attending told AFP they had been informed two people were being laid to rest.
"After a short time for prayers, family and friends will carry the body to the grave site where it will be laid to rest," council official Jocelyn Ritchie told reporters.
Muslims whose loved ones were gunned down have had their grief compounded by the failure of authorities to return bodies to families in time for a speedy burial, as required under Islamic custom.
Only six of the 50 victims have been returned to their families so far.
Authorities say they are doing all they can to speed up autopsies and the formal identification of those killed.
Police commissioner Mike Bush said that the process had been slow because of the need to identify victims conclusively and to avoid hindering the prosecution.
In a briefing on Wednesday, he said he hoped a further six bodies would be returned to families by midday.
So far 21 victims have been formally identified by the coroners, he added.
"We are doing all we can to undertake this work as quickly as possible and return the victims to their loved ones," police said in a statement.
"While identification may seem straightforward the reality is much more complex, particularly in a situation like this."
The killings have sparked outrage and revulsion in New Zealand as well as a debate about the country's comparatively permissive gun laws and whether authorities have done enough to track far-right extremists.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on Wednesday visited Cashmere High School, which lost two students in the shootings: Sayyad Milne, 14 and Hamza Mustafa, a 16-year-old refugee from Syria who died alongside his father at Al Noor mosque.
Asked by a student how she felt, Ardern replied simply: "I am sad".
A day earlier Ardern vowed gunman Brenton Tarrant would face the "full force of the law" as she opened a sombre session of parliament with an evocative "as-salaam alaikum" message of peace to Muslims.
But she pledged that she, and much of New Zealand, would deprive the 28-year-old gunman of the publicity he craved by never uttering his name.
"He is a terrorist. He is a criminal. He is an extremist. But he will, when I speak, be nameless," she told assembled lawmakers.
"I implore you: Speak the names of those who were lost rather than the name of the man who took them."
Dozens of relatives of the deceased have begun arriving from around the world, some hoping to take bodies back with them.
Of the six bodies released so far, four are expected to be repatriated overseas, council officials said.
Javed Dadabhai, who travelled from Auckland to help bury his cousin, said families and volunteers had been warned of a slow process.
"The majority of people still have not had the opportunity to see their family members," he told AFP.
In a rambling "manifesto," the gunman had said he was motivated partly by a desire to stoke a violent response from Muslims and a religious war between Islam and the West.
The Islamic State group, in a message on social media, appeared to encourage retaliatory attacks.
"The scenes of killing in the two mosques... Incite members of the caliphate living there to avenge their religion and the children of the umma (Muslims) who are being slaughtered in all corners of the earth with the sponsorship and blessing of the Crusader countries," it said.
Following the mass shooting, Ardern has promised to reform New Zealand laws that allowed the gunman to legally purchase weapons used in the attack.
New Zealanders have already begun answering government appeals to hand in their weapons, including John Hart, a farmer in the North Island district of Masterton.
Hart said it was an easy decision for him to hand in his semi-automatic and tweeted: "on the farm they are a useful tool in some circumstances, but my convenience doesn't outweigh the risk of misuse. We don't need these in our country." The tweet drew a barrage of derogatory messages to his Facebook account — most apparently from the US, where the pro-gun lobby is powerful.
Ardern has said details of the proposed reform will be announced by next week, but she indicated they could include gun buybacks and a ban on some semi-automatic rifles.
The burials took place at a cemetery not far from Linwood mosque, the second of the two mosques attacked.