Catholics, Jews say New York coronavirus restrictions violate religious rights

By Peter Szekely

NEW YORK (Reuters) – New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s recent measures to stem local outbreaks of the coronavirus have prompted demands from Catholics and Jews that courts void the restrictions because they limit religious freedom.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of New York of Brooklyn was set to hold hearing Thursday afternoon on a suit it filed in U.S. District Court in the borough on Oct. 8, while three Orthodox Jewish congregations filed suit on Thursday in U.S. District Court in Manhattan.

Both actions argue that the state’s restrictions on religious gatherings violate the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment right to freedom of religion.

Cuomo issued an order on Oct. 6 that shut down non-essential businesses and restricted gatherings at religious institutions to as few as 10 people in certain targeted areas, including some Brooklyn neighborhoods, where infections have spiked.

Cuomo insisted that his infection-fighting measures were not intended to single out religious groups and were consistent with other steps he has taken to combat geographic “clusters,” which he has defined as “red zones,” where infections spread rapidly.

But he also blamed the Orthodox Jewish communities for causing some of the infection spread in their areas.

“They never complied with any of the close-down rules going back to March,” he said in a briefing on Thursday. “That’s why some find it shocking, because they didn’t follow many of the rules all along.”

In their complaint which is laced with historical references to persecution, the Orthodox congregations said Cuomo has outlawed “all but the most minimal communal religious worship.”

“For Jews, communal worship is an essential service for which untold thousands have risked and sacrificed their lives,” the congregations — Ohalei Shem D’Nitra, Yesheos Yakov and Netzach Yisroel — said in a 33-page complaint.

Brooklyn’s Roman Catholic diocese, meanwhile, was rebuffed on Friday in its request for a temporary court order to bar the restrictions from taking effect.

But the diocese said its case was still alive, with U.S. District Court Judge Nicholas Garaufis having set a hearing for 2 p.m. EDT (1800 GMT) Thursday for arguments on its request for a longer-lasting preliminary injunction against the restrictions in 28 areas of Brooklyn and Queens.

In its complaint the diocese said it has complied with the state’s restrictions since the pandemic erupted in March, and that the new targeted measures are overly broad, infringing not only on worship services but also on ceremonies such as weddings and funerals.

“By causing the cancellation or severe curtailment of such services, the order would impose irreparable harm on the Diocese of Brooklyn and those it serves,” said the 22-page complaint.

The state’s targeted measures have sparked protests and occasional violence in some predominantly Hasidic Jewish areas of Brooklyn’s Borough Park neighborhood. In that area, more than 8% of coronavirus tests came back positive last week.

(Reporting by Peter Szekely; Additional reporting by Gabriella Borter; Editing by Tom Brown)

‘There are no funerals:’ Death in quarantine leaves nowhere to grieve

By Angelo Amante, Parisa Hafezi and Hayoung Choi

(Reuters) – Struck down by coronavirus at the age of 83, the long life of Alfredo Visioli ended with a short ceremony at a graveyard near Cremona, his hometown in northern Italy.

“They buried him like that, without a funeral, without his loved ones, with just a blessing from the priest,” said his granddaughter Marta Manfredi who couldn’t attend. Like most of the old man’s family – like most of Italy – she was confined to her home.

“When all this is over,” she vows, “we will give him a real funeral.”

Everywhere the coronavirus has struck, regardless of culture or religion, ancient rituals to honor the dead and comfort the bereaved have been cut short or abandoned for fear of spreading it further.

The virus, which has killed nearly 9,000 people worldwide, is reshaping many aspects of death, from the practicalities of handling infected bodies to meeting the spiritual and emotional needs of those left behind.

In Ireland, the health authority is advising mortuary workers to put face masks on dead bodies to reduce even the minor risk of infection. In Italy, a funeral company is using video links to allow quarantined families to watch a priest bless the deceased. And in South Korea, fear of the virus has caused such a drop in the number of mourners that funeral caterers are struggling for business.

There is little time for ceremony in hard-hit cities such as Bergamo, northeast of Milan, where the mortuaries are full and the crematorium is working around the clock, said Giacomo Angeloni, a local official in charge of cemeteries.

Bergamo, home to about 120,000 people, has been dealing with 5-6 times the number of dead it would in normal times, he said.

Italy has now reported nearly 3,000 deaths from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus – the highest outside China where the virus first emerged. The Italian army sent 50 troops and 15 trucks to Bergamo on Wednesday to take bodies to less overwhelmed provinces.

A ban on gatherings has shattered the vital rituals that help us grieve, said Andy Langford, the chief operating officer of Cruse Bereavement Care, a British charity providing free care and counseling to those in grief.

“Funerals allow a community to come together, express emotion, talk about that person and formally say goodbye,” he said.

“When you feel you have no control over how you can grieve, and over how you can experience those last moments with someone, that can complicate how you grieve and make you feel worse,” he said.


In Iran as in northern Italy, hospital and funeral workers are overwhelmed with bodies, as the virus has torn across the country, killing 1,284 people and infecting thousands, according to state TV.

The authorities have hired new people to dig graves, said a manager at Tehran’s Behesht-e Zahra cemetery. “We work day and night,” he said. “I have never seen such a sad situation. There are no funerals.”

Most corpses arrive by truck and are buried without the ritual washing that Islam dictates, he said.

Some Iranians suspect that the official haste to bury them has more to do with obscuring the spiraling death toll than halting the spread of the virus.

Deaths from COVID-19 have been recorded as heart attacks or lung infections, a hospital worker in Kashan, a city about a three-hour drive from Tehran, told Reuters.

“The officials are lying about the death toll,” the worker said. “I have seen dozens of corpses in the past few days, but they have told us not to talk about it.” Two nurses at Iranian hospitals also told Reuters they thought the death toll was higher than the official tally.

Iranian authorities have rejected allegations of a cover-up, and President Hassan Rouhani, in a televised speech on Mar. 18, said his government had been “honest and straightforward with the nation.”


In several countries, clusters of infection have followed funerals. In South Korea, where more than 90 people have died, the government has urged the families of COVID-19 victims to cremate their loved ones first, and hold the funeral later.

Korean funerals usually take place in hospitals, and involve three days of prayers and feasting. Most of the country’s early cases were linked to a church in Daegu city and a hospital in a nearby county. In February, several members of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus attended a funeral at the hospital for the brother of the church’s founder.

Since the outbreak, the number of mourners at funerals has plunged by 90%, regardless of whether the deceased had the virus, said Choi Min-ho, secretary general of the Korea Funeral Association.

“The culture of funerals has changed significantly,” he said. “A handful of mourners quickly offer condolences and leave the place without dining together out of infection worries.”

Condolence money, traditionally handed over in cash, is now sent via bank transfer, he added.

Authorities in Wuhan, the epicenter of China’s outbreak and location of the majority of its deaths, quickly identified the funeral business as a potential source of transmission.

The local civil affairs bureau in late January ordered all funerals for confirmed COVID-19 victims to be handled at a single funeral home in the city’s Hankou district. Mourning ceremonies, usually boisterous social events in China, were curtailed along with all other public gatherings.

Those restrictions are still in place, even though the number of new cases has dwindled in recent weeks. Bereaved families are not even allowed to see the bodies of their loved ones, a worker at the funeral home told Reuters.

In China, the ashes of the deceased tend to be kept in funeral homes until they are taken to a family plot on public holidays such as the Tomb Sweeping Festival in April. That’s also canceled this year.


In Spain, too, a large cluster of cases has been traced to a funeral in the northern town of Vitoria in late February. At least 60 people who attended tested positive after the event, said local media reports.

With over 600 deaths, Spain is the second-worst hit country in Europe after Italy, and most people are now confined to their homes. Referring to these restrictions, Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez has called coronavirus a “cruel” disease that paralyses the human need to socialize.

In Ireland, up to 100 guests are still allowed at all funerals – for now. But most families are opting for small private ceremonies and encouraging others to express their condolences online through websites such as, where death notices and funeral invitations are usually posted.

Open casket funerals are out for any victim of coronavirus, and “the family should be advised not to kiss the deceased,” according to new guidelines from Ireland’s Health and Safety Executive to its funeral directors.

The risk of catching coronavirus from a dead body is slim, public health officials say, but some countries are recommending extra measures.

Israel has reported no coronavirus deaths, but its health ministry says the deceased should be double-wrapped in impermeable plastic. Ritual washing and rites will be performed in full protective gear and the corpse re-wrapped in plastic for burial. Normally Israel’s Jewish dead are laid to rest in a cloth smock and shroud.

Ireland’s guidelines advise workers in funeral parlors to put face masks on dead bodies before moving them, in case they “expel a very small amount of air and viral droplets from the lungs” and infect the living.

In Britain, where the pandemic is still gathering pace, there is widespread anxiety about the likely death toll.

Britain has been slower in implementing the strict measures seen elsewhere in Europe, and expert estimates of how many will die from COVID-19 have ranged wildly from the tens to the hundreds of thousands.

An emergency bill to tackle the virus, which has killed 104 people in Britain, includes a number of measures the government says will “streamline the death management process.” The measures include allowing funeral directors to register a death on behalf of a self-isolating family.

Deborah Smith, a spokesperson for the National Association of Funeral Directors, said the bill will help the profession “preserve the dignity of those who die and care for their bereaved families with compassion – even if they are not able to have the kind of funeral they would have wanted.”

Smith would not be drawn on the expected numbers, but said “funeral directors are preparing for a variety of scenarios.”


One scenario is already playing out in Wuhan.

Last month, a worker at the funeral home in Hankou district, identifying himself only as Huang, wrote an essay that was circulated on social media. He said funeral workers were as overwhelmed as the city’s medics but had received less recognition.

He said staff had worked without a break since the start of the epidemic. “Some of our employees don’t even drink water because they need to go to the toilet and it’s difficult to take off the protective clothing,” he wrote.

Half a world away, in the virus-stricken Italian town of Bergamo, funeral workers wage a near-identical struggle.

“It’s like being in a war with an invisible enemy,” said Roberta Caprini, a partner in Centro Funerario Bergamasco, a funeral service in Bergamo. “We’ve been working without interruption for two weeks and sleeping 3-4 hours a night when we manage it. Everyone in our area, us included, has lost someone or have someone sick in their home.”

Bergamo’s Church of All Saints has become a makeshift mortuary, its pews pushed aside to accommodate the dead. Caprini said she had counted at least 60 coffins when she visited on Tuesday.

She spoke of the “real torture” felt by families who watched sick relatives taken away to hospital and never saw them again. Her company has arranged video links to burials, to allow families to watch the priest bless the deceased.

Sometimes, she said, they drive the hearses past the bereaved family’s home, so mourners “can at least come down at the moment and offer a quick prayer.”

(This story has been refiled to fix the bylines)

(Reporting by Elisa Anzolin and Emilio Parodi in Milan; Angelo Amante in Rome; Parisa Hafezi in Dubai; David Stanway in Shanghai; Joan Faus in Barcelona; Hayoung Choi in Seoul, Padraic Halpin in Dublin; Emma Farge in Zurich; Kate Kelland in London and Dan Williams in Jerusalem; Writing and additional reporting by Andrew RC Marshall; Edited by Sara Ledwith and Jason Szep)

Under armed escort, mourner convoys reach Mexican village for U.S. family funerals

Under armed escort, mourner convoys reach Mexican village for U.S. family funerals
By Jose Luis Gonzalez

BAVISPE, Mexico (Reuters) – Convoys of vehicles carrying relatives of a group of American women and children slain by unknown gunmen snaked through the dark from as far away as the United States into a remote Mexican region ahead of funerals for the victims to be held on Thursday and Friday.

Members of breakaway Mormon communities that settled in Mexico decades ago, the three dual-nationality women and six children were ambushed in Sonora state on Monday, leading to U.S. President Donald Trump urging Mexico and the United States to “wage war’ together on the drug cartels.

Late on Monday, dozens of SUV-style vehicles and pickup trucks escorted by Mexican National Guard outliers rolled into the municipality of Bavispe, where funerals will be held for two of the women and their families on Thursday.

“We came prepared to sleep on the floor, in tents. Whatever is needed to support the families who died in this terrorist act,” said Alex LeBaron, a former Congressman and cousin of one of the women, Rhonita Miller.

The remains of Miller and her children, whose bodies were reduced to ash and bones when the car they were in was shot at and went up in flames, are due to be buried in another village called Colonia LeBaron on Friday.

Alex LeBaron, who was with the convoy, told Mexican radio that mourners had come from the United States and across Mexico, bringing food and mattresses for the journey.

The LeBaron family, which came to Mexico in the early 20th century, now claims to be made up of more than 5,000 members.

Authorities and relatives say the killings appeared to be the work of the Juarez and the Sinaloa Cartels, who fight for control of lucrative drug routes that run through the sparsely populated mountainous areas into the United States.

Mexico has unleashed its military against cartels since 2006 but despite the arrests or killings of leading traffickers, the campaign has failed to reduce violence. Instead, it has led to more killings as criminal groups fight among themselves.

The victims came from prominent local families, including the LeBarons, Millers and Langfords.

Nestled in the fertile valleys of the Sierra Madre mountains just a few hours drive south from the U.S. border, the oldest communities stem from the late 1800s, when upheaval over polygamy in the Utah-based church led to their founding.

The settlements have marriage ties to others in the United States.

(The story is refiled to add Thursday as one date of funerals in first paragraph)

(Reporting by Jose Luis Gonzalez; Additional reporting by Noe Torres; Writing by Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)

New Zealand begins funerals for mosque shooting victims, PM visits school

Flowers and cards are seen at the memorial site for the victims of Friday's shooting, outside Al Noor mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand March 19, 2019. REUTERS/Edgar Su

By Tom Lasseter and Tom Westbrook

CHRISTCHURCH (Reuters) – The bodies of 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 – the first burials of the 50 victims.

The majority of victims from Friday’s attack in the South Island city were migrants or refugees from countries such as Pakistan, India, Malaysia, Indonesia, Turkey, Somalia, Afghanistan and Bangladesh.

People attend the burial ceremony for the victims of the mosque attacks at the Memorial Park Cemetery in Christchurch, New Zealand March 20, 2019. REUTERS/Jorge Silva

People attend the burial ceremony for the victims of the mosque attacks at the Memorial Park Cemetery in Christchurch, New Zealand March 20, 2019. REUTERS/Jorge Silva

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.

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 traveled 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 in shalwar kameez (long tunic and trousers), while women wore hijabs and scarfs.

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, was being cleaned and repaired for Friday prayers.

Near the mosque, members of rival gangs did a Maori haka, a powerful indigenous 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.

“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 U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation and those from Australia, Canada and Britain, were building up a profile of the alleged shooter.

“I can assure you this is an absolute international investigation,” Police Commissioner Mike Bush said at a media briefing in the capital Wellington.

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.

New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern meets with one of the first responders who was at the scene of the Christchurch mosque shooting, in Christchurch, New Zealand March 20, 2019. REUTERS/Edgar Su

New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern meets with one of the first responders who was at the scene of the Christchurch mosque shooting, in Christchurch, New Zealand March 20, 2019. REUTERS/Edgar Su


The attack was broadcast live on Facebook and quickly distributed to other platforms, prompting Ardern and others to rebuke the technology companies.

A group of state-run New Zealand investment funds with a combined NZ$90 billion ($61.5 billion) in assets said they were putting their investment heft behind calls for Facebook, Google and Twitter to take action following the livestreaming and sharing on social media of the attack.

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.

($1 = 1.4624 New Zealand dollars)

(Additional reporting by Charlotte Greenfield and Edgar Sue in CHRISTCHURCH, Praveen Menon in WELLINGTON; Editing by Michael Perry, Lincoln Feast and Simon Cameron-Moore)

Pittsburgh burying three more synagogue shooting victims

A hearse is parked outside the Berg Shalom Synagogue, where a funeral will be held for Joyce Feinberg, one of the victims in Saturday's synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S. October 31, 2018. REUTERS/Jessica Resnick-Ault

By Jessica Resnick-Ault and Chriss Swaney

PITTSBURGH (Reuters) – Pittsburgh began holding three more funerals on Wednesday for Jewish victims of a shooting rampage at a synagogue that has become the focus of a fierce political debate about white nationalism and anti-Semitism ahead of hotly contested U.S. congressional elections next week.

Eleven worshipers were gunned down on Saturday morning by a man who stormed into the Tree of Life Synagogue and opened fire, yelling anti-Semitic statements including: “All Jews must die.” It was believed to be the deadliest attack on Jews in the United States in recent history.

Funerals were being held on Wednesday for Melvin Wax, 88, who was leading Sabbath services when the attack began; retired real estate agent Irving Younger, 69; and retired university researcher Joyce Fienberg, 75.

Mourners began showing up hours before Fienberg’s midmorning funeral at the Beth Shalom Synagogue as police blocked off surrounding streets.

The aftermath of the tragedy still pervaded life in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood where the synagogue is located.

In coffee shops, customers talked about the victims they knew. In the street, friends embraced and comforted one another during the period of raw grief.

The synagogue attack has heightened a national debate over Republican U.S. President Donald Trump’s rhetoric, which critics say has contributed to a surge in white-nationalist and neo-Nazi activity. His administration denies he has encouraged far-right extremism and is instead attempting to unify America.

Amid the first funerals for victims on Tuesday, Trump visited Tree of Life.

Thousands protested his presence in the city, accusing him of using rhetoric that has fueled anti-Semitism in America.

Several thousand protesters, an ethnically mixed crowd of all ages, held an anti-Trump rally about a block away from the synagogue just as his visit began, singing Old Testament psalms and carrying signs with such slogans as: “We build bridges not walls.”

Trump made no public comments during his visit but wrote on Twitter on Wednesday morning that his office had been “shown great respect on a very sad and solemn day” in Pittsburgh.

“Small protest was not seen by us, staged far away,” he tweeted. “The Fake News stories were just the opposite-Disgraceful!”

More than 1,800 people paid their respects on Tuesday at Rodef Shalom, another synagogue in Squirrel Hill, the heart of the city’s Jewish community.

Trump’s visit to Pennsylvania’s second largest city came seven days before elections that will determine whether his Republican Party maintains control of both houses of Congress or whether the Democrats seize a majority in one chamber or both.

The accused gunman in the synagogue attack, Robert Bowers, was charged on Monday with 29 federal felony counts including hate crimes.

Four days after the attack, nerves in Squirrel Hill were still frayed. A public school was placed on lockdown following an unsubstantiated report that someone had brought a gun onto campus, police said. The lockdown ended after police found no weapons.

Jodi Smith, a Pittsburgh native, joined mourners ahead of the Wax funeral at the Ralph Schugar Chapel and remembered him as a “very polite, gentle man.”

“I could have claimed him as a father,” Smith said. “He was always at the synagogue, always helping out. The synagogue had been his life since his wife passed away a few years ago.”

Fienberg spent 25 years as a researcher at the University of Pittsburgh’s Learning Research and Development Center until she retired in 2008.

“She was an engaging, elegant, and warm person,” the center said on Facebook.

Younger, whose funeral is being held at Rodef Shalom, was remembered as a doting grandfather.

(Additional reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; Editing by John Stonestreet and Jeffrey Benkoe)

Cubans begin to bury their dead from Cuba’s worst plane crash since 1989

People react during a religious ceremony where victims of the Boeing 737 plane crash were remembered at a church in Havana, Cuba, May 20, 2018. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini

By Marc Frank

HAVANA (Reuters) – Cubans in eastern Holguin province held a funeral on Sunday for an art instructor and her small child, the first of 67 Holguin residents to be brought home for burial out of 110 people who died Friday in Cuba’s worst plane crash since 1989.

Distressed residents gathered at a cultural center in the coastal town of Gibara to sit with the remains and console the family, photos in the official Juventud Rebelde newspaper showed, a Cuban tradition that is followed by a quick burial.

People react during a religious ceremony where victims of the Boeing 737 plane crash were remembered at a church in Havana, Cuba, May 20, 2018. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini

People react during a religious ceremony where victims of the Boeing 737 plane crash were remembered at a church in Havana, Cuba, May 20, 2018. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini

The fiery crash of an aging Boeing <BA.N> passenger jet shortly after take-off from Havana on route to Holguin has stunned the Caribbean island nation where prayers were given for the dead and three survivors at services across the country.

The survivors, all women, are in critical condition, and their progress is being closely followed by many Cubans through regular hospital updates.

“Everyone is hoping and praying for them,” said retired Havana telephone operator Marlen Rodriguez Rebasa. “Everyone is very attentive and wants them to survive. They are very young and have families.”

Sunday marked the second and last day of official mourning for the victims, which included 99 Cuban passengers, three foreign tourists – two Argentines and a Mexican – and two Sahrawi residents in Cuba. Also among the dead were six Mexican crew members of a little-known Mexican company called Damojh, that leased the nearly 40-year-old Boeing 737 to Cuban flagship carrier Cubana.

The company has come under scrutiny due to allegations of previous safety problems and complaints by former employees.

A pilot who used to work for Damojh was quoted by Mexican newspaper Milenio criticizing the company for lack of adequate maintenance of planes.

Damojh declined to comment, while Mexico’s Directorate General of Civil Aeronautics said a new audit of the company would be undertaken to ensure it was still “fulfilling norms.”

An evangelical pastor shows a picture of Ronni Pupo and Yurisel Miranda, victims of the Boeing 737 plane crash, during a religious ceremony in a church in Havana, Cuba, May 20, 2018. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini

An evangelical pastor shows a picture of Ronni Pupo and Yurisel Miranda, victims of the Boeing 737 plane crash, during a religious ceremony in a church in Havana, Cuba, May 20, 2018. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini

The charter company would be allowed to continue flying its two other planes until the survey was concluded, a spokesman for the directorate general said.

“If we conclude the physical revision and there is nothing wrong with them, no issue, they continue to fly,” he said.

Investigators kept combing the wreckage on Sunday, some 20 kilometers (11 miles) from downtown Havana, searching for a second black box containing mechanical data. The cockpit voice recorder was recovered in good condition on Saturday.

Representatives from Boeing and Mexico were expected to join the investigation into what caused the crash, Transportation Minister Adel Yzquierdo said on Saturday, a process that can take weeks or months.

In Gibara, family and friends of teacher Suyen Lizandra Figueredo Driggs and her daughter Alexa Rivas Figueredo were able to find some closure on Sunday.

However, for many relatives of the dead that will take time as identification of their loved ones remains an arduous task due to the condition of the victims’ bodies.

“Out of all these corpses, we have 20 identified so far,” Sergio Rabell, head of the National Institute of Forensic Medicine, told the local media on Sunday. He said the process could take up to a month.

(Reporting by Marc Frank in Havana; Additional Reporting by Sarah Marsh in Havana and Anthony Esposito in Mexico City; Editing by Daniel Wallis)

Russia buries victims of mall blaze as flags fly at half mast

A woman reacts during a gathering to commemorate the victims of a shopping mall fire in Kemerovo on the day of national mourning in the far eastern city of Vladivostok, Russia March 28, 2018. REUTERS/Yuri Maltsev

By Polina Ivanova and Andrew Osborn

KEMEROVO/MOSCOW (Reuters) – Funerals began in Russia on Wednesday for the 64 people, most of them children, whose deaths in a fire at a Siberian shopping mall have roused public anger over official corruption and incompetence.

Flags on government buildings across Russia flew at half mast, state TV and radio stations removed light entertainment shows from their schedules, and lawmakers in Moscow observed a minute of silence.

The fire at the Winter Cherry mall in the city of Kemerovo on Sunday killed 41 children. Investigators have not confirmed the cause of the fire, but the high death toll has been blamed on reported shortcomings in the mall’s safety procedures.

At a funeral service in an Orthodox church in Kemerovo, about 3,600 km (2,200 miles) east of Moscow, women wailed as prayers were sung over three coffins, including two small caskets for children.

Sergei and Natalia Agarkov buried two school-age children, Konstantin and Maria. The children’s grandmother, Nadezhda Agarkova, was also killed.

All three had gone to see a film at a cinema on the top floor of the shopping center and had been unable to get out of the auditorium when the fire broke out. Russian media reported the doors had been locked.

“This tragedy is made even worse by the fact that children became victims of the blaze. Great grief is upon all of us and there are no words that would express our common pain,” the priest told the mourners, who held candles and repeatedly crossed themselves.

President Vladimir Putin, visiting the disaster scene on Tuesday, promised angry residents that those responsible for what he called criminal negligence would be punished and declared Wednesday a national day of mourning.

Putin on Wednesday ordered similar shopping centers across Russia to be inspected to make sure they were well prepared in the event of a fire.

Some victims’ relatives say they believe a cover-up is under way and that the death toll is higher than 64, something Putin has denied. Investigators on Wednesday said they had opened a criminal case into a Ukrainian prankster who they said had spread disinformation about the death toll.


Investigators say their main theory is that an electrical short circuit caused the fire.

Almost all the bodies have been recovered, many of which could be identified only via DNA testing. A further 14 people remain in hospital.

Russia has rigorous fire safety rules and a system of regular inspections, but these efforts are undermined by endemic corruption which affects many aspects of life in the country of 144 million people.

Moscow reduced the number of inspections for certain businesses after complaints that inspectors were extorting bribes in exchange for turning a blind eye to violations.

But some business owners in Kemerovo said this meant that safety shortcomings were not being identified.

The governor of the region where the fire took place, Aman Tuleyev, sacked two senior officials on Wednesday, the RIA news agency reported.

Investigators have also detained and charged five people over the fire, including a security guard who they accuse of turning off the public address system and the mall’s manager who is accused of violating fire safety regulations.

At least one vigil held in memory of the dead in cities across Russia has turned into an anti-government demonstration.

At a Moscow gathering on Tuesday attended by several thousand people, including opposition leader Alexei Navalny, protesters held banners reading “Bribes kill children” and “We demand a real investigation”.

Some chanted “Putin – resign!”, ten days after Putin secured a comfortable election win for another six-year term in office.

(Reporting by Polina Ivanova in Kemerovo; Writing by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Christian Lowe and Raissa Kasolowsky)

Italy to hold mass funeral as search for bodies continue

Mourners cry next to a coffin prior the funeral for victims of the earthquake that leveled the town in Amatrice

By Matteo Berlenga and Iona Serrapica

AMATRICE, Italy (Reuters) – Italy hurriedly revised preparations for a mass funeral for earthquake victims on Tuesday after protests by bereaved relatives, as crews continued to dig for bodies under mounds of rubble.

Family members had objected to plans to hold the ceremony in an aircraft hangar in the town of Rieti where the bodies had been stored. The funeral will instead be held in Amatrice, the place hardest-hit by last week’s 6.2-magnitude quake.

Of the 292 confirmed dead, 231 were found in Amatrice, which was left in ruins.

A number of foreigners were among the dead, including 11 Romanians and three Britons.

Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, President Sergio Mattarella and Romanian Prime Minister Dacian Ciolos were scheduled to attend the funeral at 6 p.m. (1600 GMT), the Civil Protection Agency said.

Tuesday’s funeral is for some three dozen of the victims. Many of those who died in Amatrice on Aug. 24 were not residents and their funerals are being held in their hometowns.

Workers used heavy machinery to gravel over an area on Amatrice’s outskirts where the ceremony will take place within sight of shattered buildings.

Coffins of some of the victims of the earthquake in central Italy are seen inside a gym in Ascoli Piceno,

Coffins of some of the victims of the earthquake in central Italy are seen inside a gym in Ascoli Piceno, August 26, 2016. REUTERS/Adamo Di Loreto

Marquees were still being erected for the funeral ceremony as the first caskets arrived. A hearse and a van carrying at least four coffins had to be turned away until the work could be completed.

In the center of town emergency workers used mechanical diggers and bulldozers to search for bodies, an unknown number of which may still be trapped beneath dust and debris.

It is the second state-sponsored funeral in three days. On Saturday rites were held for victims of the quake from the adjoining Marche region. Amatrice is in the region of Lazio.

Controversy has grown over poor construction techniques, which may have been responsible for many deaths.

Investigators are looking into work done on the bell tower in Accumoli, which was recently restored but collapsed during the quake onto the home of a family of four, killing them all.

Italy sits on two seismic faultlines. Many of its buildings are hundreds of years old and susceptible to earthquake damage.

Almost 30 people died in earthquakes in northern Italy in 2012 and more than 300 in the city of L’Aquila in 2009.

(Additional reporting by Antonella Cinelli; writing by Steve Scherer; editing by Andrew Roche)

More funerals for Orlando nightclub massacre set for Friday

Ernesto Vergne kneels at a cross in honor of his friend Xavier Emmanuel Serrano Rosado who was killed at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida,

By Bernie Woodall

ORLANDO, Fla. (Reuters) – Families of some of the 49 people killed in a massacre at a nightclub will bury their dead on Friday, as Orlando holds funerals over the next two weeks for victims of the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history.

Like many of the victims of Sunday’s attack on the Pulse club, Anthony Luis Laureano Disla, 25, was from Puerto Rico. He is to be buried on Friday, according to the Newcomer Funeral Home, a day after more than 150 friends and family mourned him at a wake.

The gunman, Omar Mateen, a 29-year-old U.S. citizen born in New York to Afghan immigrant parents, claimed allegiance to a conflicting list of Islamist militant groups, including Islamic State, in a series of phone calls and internet messages during his three-hour rampage, which ended when police shot him dead.

U.S. officials have said they do not believe he was assisted from abroad in the attack, which also wounded 53 people.

Members of 94 families who had relatives among the dead and wounded have visited a downtown football stadium where civil agencies are proving relief services, Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer told reporters on Friday.

Dyer said he would go to the funerals that families asked him to attend. “I will ask the community to do the same … These are private ceremonies, people are hurting,” he said.

Kenneth Feinberg, the lawyer who helped administer compensation funds for victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington and the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, is flying in to Orlando to advise the city’s Orlando United relief fund, Dyer said.

Separately, the National Compassion Fund, a unit of the nonprofit National Center for Victims of Crime, was tapped on Thursday by gay rights group Equality Florida, to distribute the roughly $5 million raised online for the victims. [L1N1971VU]

On Thursday, more than 300 people, including Florida Governor Rick Scott, attended the viewing for Eric Ivan Ortiz-Rivera, who was born in Dorado, Puerto Rico. He was 36 when he was killed during a night of dancing to celebrate a friend’s new house. His husband had stayed home that night in the couple’s apartment.

“He was in a Snapchat video that’s out there, dancing away, so we know he had some fun before the madness,” said his cousin, Orlando Gonzalez.

President Barack Obama, who met survivors of the shooting and families of the dead in Orlando on Thursday, urged Congress to pass measures to make it harder to legally acquire high-powered weapons like the semi-automatic rifle used in the attack.

Mateen carried out the slaughter with the rifle and a handgun that had been legally purchased although he had twice been investigated by the FBI for possible connections with militant Islamist groups.

Congress is under pressure to respond and on Thursday the Senate inched toward votes on a series of gun control measures, although it is far from likely the measures will pass. The Senate is expected to vote on Monday on four proposals for gun restrictions.

(Additional reporting by Julia Harte and Peter Eisler in Orlando and Zachary Fagenson in West Palm Beach, Florida; Writing by Fiona Ortiz and Scott Malone; Editing by Janet Lawrence and Frances Kerry)