The first funeral for a victim of New Zealand's twin mosque massacre was set to take place on Wednesday, 20 March, as authorities vowed to return more bodies to their loved ones following criticism over delays.
An Australian white supremacist gunman killed 50 Muslim worshippers at two mosques in the southern city of Christchurch last Friday, 15 March in a murder spree he broadcast live.
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.
On Wednesday, Christchurch City Council confirmed the first funeral would take place later that morning in a cemetery not far from Linwood Mosque, the second of the two places of worship targeted.
“After a short time for prayers, family and friends will carry the body to the grave site where it will be laid to rest.”Jocelyn Ritchie, Official, Christchurch City Council
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 and he added that he hoped the majority of identifications would be concluded by Wednesday night.
“We are doing all we can to undertake this work as quickly as possible and return the victims to their loved ones.”New Zealand Police statement
"While identification may seem straightforward the reality is much more complex, particularly in a situation like this," the statement added.
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 Tuesday, 19 March, said the 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 the black-clad Ardern pledged to grieving Kiwis that she would deprive the 28-year-old gunman of the publicity he craved by never uttering his name.
"That is why you will never hear me mention 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.”Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand Prime Minister
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.
Mohamed Safi, 23, whose father Matiullah Safi died in Al Noor mosque, pleaded for officials to let him identify his father and set a date for his burial.
"There's nothing they are offering," Safi, an Afghan refugee, said outside a family support centre.
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.
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.
(Published in an arrangement with PTI)