CHRISTCHURCH (REUTERS) - The bodies of two victims from New Zealand’s mosques mass shooting were carried in open caskets on the shoulders of mourners into a large tent at Christchurch’s Memorial Park Cemetery on Wednesday (March 20) – the first burials of the 50 victims.
Wrapped in white cloth, the bodies were laid to face Mecca, and, after jenazah (funeral) prayers, were carried towards their freshly dug graves.
“Seeing the body lowered down, it was a very emotional time for me,” said Gulshad Ali, who had travelled from Auckland to attend the first funeral.
Several mounds of dirt piled high marked the site of multiple graves which will be used for New Zealand’s worst mass shooting. Hundreds gathered to mourn, some men wearing a taqiyah (skullcap), others shalwar kameez (long tunic and trousers), while women wore hijabs and scarfs.
The majority of victims were migrants or refugees from countries such as Pakistan, India, Malaysia, Indonesia, Turkey, Somalia, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. The youngest was a boy of three, born in New Zealand to Somali refugee parents.
The first two victims buried, father and son Khaled and Hamza Mustafa, came from war-torn Syria.
“I cannot tell you how gutting it is...a family came here for safety and they should have been safe here,” said Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, visiting the city for the second time since the massacre.
Heavily armed police stood watch with flowers tucked in their revolver holsters and attached to their high powered rifles.
Six victims were buried on Wednesday, with more expected during the week.
Ardern said this coming Friday’s call to prayers for Muslims in New Zealand will be broadcast nationally and there will be a two minute silence on Friday.
“There is a desire to show support for the Muslim community as they return to mosques on Friday,” she said.
The bullet-ridden Al Noor mosque, where more than 40 people died, is being repaired for Friday prayers.
Near the mosque, members of rival gangs did a Maori haka, a powerful indigenious ceremonial performance, and a crowd of people sung New Zealand’s national anthem as the sun set.
The Australian National Imams Council has called on Imams to dedicate this Friday’s Khutbah (sermon) to the Christchurch mosque mass shooting.
“The attack on any Muslim or any innocent person anywhere around the world is an attack on all Muslims and all people,”the council said in a statement. “This is a human and an international tragedy, not only a Muslim and NZ tragedy. These acts of terror are there to divide us...and we reject this in all its forms and ways, but rather we will stay united and strong.”
Australian Brenton Tarrant, 28, a suspected white supremacist who was living in Dunedin, on New Zealand’s South Island, has been charged with murder following the attack. He was remanded without a plea and is due back in court on April 5, when police said he was likely to face more charges.
New Zealand’s police chief said global intelligence agencies, including the US Federal Bureau of Investigation and those from Australia, Canada and Britain, were building up a profile of the alleged shooter.
Questions were being asked about New Zealand’s relaxed gun laws, which Ardern has promised to tighten, and on whether New Zealand authorities were focused enough on the risk from far-right extremists.
As of Tuesday night 21 victims had been identified, with the remainder expected to be completed on Wednesday before their bodies can be released for burial, police said.
Families of the victims have been frustrated by the delay as under Islam bodies are usually buried within 24 hours. Bush said police had to prove the cause of death to the satisfaction of the coroner and the judge handling the case.
“You cannot convict for murder without that cause of death. So this is a very comprehensive process that must be completed to the highest standard,” he said.
Twenty nine people wounded in the attacks remained in hospital, eight still in intensive care. Many have had to undergo multiple surgeries due to complicated gunshot wounds.
The gunman used semi-automatic AR-15 rifles, with large magazines, and a shotgun.
TRAGEDY FOR A SCHOOL
Ardern, who has promised tough new gun laws which could ban semi-automatic weapons and make buying a gun harder, has said the victims would see justice. She has refused to mention alleged gunman Tarrant’s name, saying he does not deserve publicity.
Ardern earlier visited Cashmere High School in Christchurch which lost two students in the attack – teenagers Sayyad Milne and Hamza Mustafa – plus Hamza’s father Khaled, and a former student Tariq Omar.
She talked to about 200 children gathered at the school auditorium about racism and changes in gun laws.
“Never mention the perpetrator’s name ... never remember him for what he did,” she said, asking the children to focus on the victims.