The first of nine US victims killed in a shooting at a bible reading in Charleston have been laid to rest. The funerals were held amid ongoing controversy over the continued use of the Confederate flag.
Crowds of mourners gathered at the services of Ethel Lee Lance and Sharonda-Coleman Singleton on Thursday. Five funerals were also due to be held on Friday and Saturday, with two more yet to be confirmed.
Security was tight at Lances's funeral, with police guarding the ceremony and checking bags as hundreds of mourners arrived to pay their respects to the mother-of-five.
Similarly, at Singleton's funeral, authorities also surrounded the church and nearby roads.
Six men and six women were killed in the attack by an apparently racially-motivated gunman during a Bible study meeting at Charleston's Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church last Wednesday.
US President Barack Obama was due on Friday to read the eulogy at the funeral service for one of the nine victims, Reverand Clementa Pickney. The president was a friend of the late pastor who was also a state senator in South Carolina.
The main suspect in the murder case, Dylann Roof has been charged with nine counts of murder. A website discovered on three days after the shooting, included a manifesto embracing white supremacy and photographs of the 21-year-old suspect holding a Confederate flag and a handgun.
The images have provoked a nation-wide debate over the flag, with calls for its removal from a number of state buildings. US retailers including Walmart and Amazon have also withdrawn Confederate flag merchandise from sale.
The blue, star-emblazoned cross set against at red background dates back to the time of slavery and was used by separatist southern states during the US Civil War from 1861 to 1865. For many, the saltire has become a symbol of racism, with the Ku Klux Klan having also used the banner during their hate campaigns.
'Promotes neither healing nor reconciliation'
In Washington National Cathedral on Thursday, Reverend Gary Hall also called for two stained glass windows depicting the controversial Confederate flag to be removed.
"Here, in 2015, we know that celebrating the lives of these two men [Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson], and the flag under which they fought, promotes neither healing nor reconciliation, especially for our African-American sisters and brothers," Hall said.
The only suspect in last week's gun attack is due to stand trial in October.
ksb/rc (Reuters, AFP, AP, dpa)