CHARLESTON, South Carolina: Thousands of people packed a sweltering Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston on Sunday as it reopened to worshippers after a gunman, identified by authorities as a 21-year-old white man, shot dead nine black church members.
A mostly black congregation swelled to about 400 people for a memorial service remembering those killed on Wednesday in the latest US mass shooting, some wiping away tears and praying as the organ began to play. Outside the church, a large, mostly white crowd gathered to express solidarity with those inside.
Armed police searched bags at the door of the church, home to the oldest African-American congregation in the southern United States, and officers stood at intervals inside the church along the side of the nave and in the gallery. Those attending the service used hand fans to try to keep cool in the heat
The church massacre has again trained a spotlight on the country’s pervasive and divisive issues of race relations and gun crime.
The suspect, Dylann Roof, was arrested on Thursday and has been charged with nine counts of murder. Authorities say he spent an hour in an evening Bible study group at the church, nicknamed “Mother Emanuel” for its key role in US black history, before opening fire.
Federal investigators were examining a racist manifesto apparently written by Roof that surfaced on a website on Saturday. The site featured photos and white supremacist writings, as well as an “explanation” by the author for taking some unspecified action.
“I have no choice … I chose Charleston because it is most historic city in my state, and at one time had the highest ratio of blacks to Whites in the country,” it said.The massacre was the latest in a series of mass shootings that have reignited a debate over gun control in a country where the right to own firearms is constitutionally protected.
Charleston Mayor Joseph Riley, on the CNN programme State of the Union, made a pitch for stricter gun control laws.
“It is insane the number of guns and the ease of getting guns in America,” Riley said. “It’s not that people should not carry guns and all of that, it’s just that there are so many of them and the ease of them and there is no accountability.” President Barack Obama, in an interview taped on Friday, blamed the powerful gun-rights lobby group the National Rifle Association and an apathetic American public for the failure to implement new gun control measures.
After a school shooting in Connecticut in December 2012, Obama proposed more background checks for gun sales and pushed to ban more types of military-style assault weapons and limit the capacity of ammunition magazines. But the measures failed to win passage in the US Congress.
The church shootings were the main topic at other Sunday services in Charleston, a city sometimes dubbed “The Holy City” because of its multitude of historic churches.At the predominantly white-membership St. Michael’s Church, founded in the 17th century, the Reverend Alfred Zadig Jr. said he did not know any of the victims and asked for forgiveness “for failing to be a pastor who reaches out beyond my world.” “You and I are so good at compartmentalising grief,” Zadig told his congregation about a mile from massacre site.
“Today I’m asking you to feel the unthinkable pain … This is not God’s will. God did not ordain this event to happen to make a point about racism.”
Outside the Emanuel AME church, bouquets, teddy bears and balloons covered the sidewalk while hundreds of people lined up to mourn, sing hymns and leave memorials.
Thousands of handwritten messages covered white banners at the church’s entrance, reading “God Bless,” or “Thank you Sen”.
Rev. Clementa Pinckney. You will 4ever be an inspiration,” referring to the church’s pastor, a state senator who was one of the victims.
The victims’ names, written on white ribbons adorned with roses, bedecked one of the church’s gates. Another gate held a black shirt that read: “Do you believe us now.” Joseph Kovas, 19, was hoping to make it inside the church for Sunday’s service.
“We wanted to come to show our presence and prayers to the community. The way they have been affected is tremendous,” he said. “The people have come together in Charleston and that is great testament to this city.”