Hundreds gather as funerals begin for New Zealand mosque massacre victims

Syrian father and son first of 50 victims to be laid to rest; most bodies not yet returned to families as authorities try to complete ID process without hindering prosecution

Zaid Mustafa (C, in wheelchair), who was wounded by an Australian white supremacist gunman, attends the funeral of his slain father Khalid Mustafa and brother Hamza Mustafa at the Memorial Park cemetery in Christchurch on March 20, 2019. Photo by WILLIAM WEST / AFP)
Zaid Mustafa (C, in wheelchair), who was wounded by an Australian white supremacist gunman, attends the funeral of his slain father Khalid Mustafa and brother Hamza Mustafa at the Memorial Park cemetery in Christchurch on March 20, 2019. Photo by WILLIAM WEST / AFP)

CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand (AFP) –A Syrian refugee and his son were buried in New Zealand on Wednesday in the first funerals for those killed in the twin mosque massacre as the country braced for days of emotional farewells following the mass slayings.

An Australian white supremacist gunman shot down 50 Muslim worshipers 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.

There they prayed and laid to rest Khaled Mustafa and his 15-year-old son Hamza, their names broadcast over a loudspeaker.

The Mustafa family arrived last year as refugees in New Zealand seeking sanctuary from the maelstrom of Syria.

Instead, Khaled and Hamza were shot dead at the Al Noor Mosque, the first mosque attacked.

Younger brother Zaid, 13, was wounded but survived and attended the funeral in a wheelchair, his hands held aloft as he prayed alongside the rows of mourners.

Among those in attendance was Abdul Aziz, an Afghan refugee who bravely confronted the gunman at Linwood Mosque. He was hugged by many mourners.

Mourners carry the first coffins of victims killed in the March 15 twin mosque massacre during a funeral at the Memorial Park cemetery in Christchurch on March 20, 2019. (Photo by WILLIAM WEST / AFP)

“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.

Volunteers gather around the grave ahead of funeral prayers for a victim killed in the March 15 twin mosque massacre at the Memorial Park cemetery in Christchurch on March 20, 2019.(Photo by Anthony WALLACE / AFP)

“While identification may seem straightforward the reality is much more complex, particularly in a situation like this.”

I’m sad

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 somber session of parliament with an evocative “as-salaam alaikum” message of peace to Muslims.

In this image made from video, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, center, hugs and consoles a woman as she visited Kilbirnie Mosque to lay flowers among tributes to Christchurch attack victims, in Wellington, March 17, 2019. (TVNZ via AP)

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.”

Families gather

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.

Hoping to fuel hatred

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.

Mourners gather at Memorial Park Cemetery for the first funeral ceremony of the Christchurch mosque attacks victim in Christchurch, New Zealand on March 20, 2019. (Photo by William WEST / AFP)

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.

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