By Renita D. Young
CHICAGO (Reuters) - The national debate over gun violence took a highly personal turn for first lady Michelle Obama when a Chicago girl was slain near Obama's family home just days after she performed at the presidential inauguration in Washington.
The first lady and top federal, state and city officials joined hundreds of mourners on Saturday at the funeral of Hadiya Pendleton, 15, who was killed at a park near her Chicago high school, casting the bitter national debate over gun violence in personal terms for the Obamas.
The first lady met privately with members of Pendleton's family and with about 30 of her friends and classmates before the funeral. She sat in the church next to senior White House adviser Valerie Jarrett. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who once led the Chicago public schools, sat next to Jarrett.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Illinois Governor Pat Quinn, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan and U.S. Representatives Danny Davis and Bobby Rush were also among the mourners.
"Hadiya's life has touched individuals, mothers, fathers, families and governments across this planet," her aunt, Linda Wilks, said. "If this does not demonstrate the power of light and love, we are a people deeply cloaked in darkness."
Pendleton's body rested in a silver casket, surrounded by flowers for the funeral service at Greater Harvest Baptist Church in Chicago.
Pendleton's mother, Cleopatra Cowley-Pendleton, thanked mourners for an outpouring of support since her daughter's death and at times laughed when talking about her.
"You don't know how hard this is. For those of you who do know how hard this is, I'm sorry," Cowley-Pendleton said. "No mother, no father should ever have to experience this."
Pendleton was fatally shot in what police say was a case of mistaken identity in a gang turf war as she and her friends took shelter from a rainstorm in a park near her school.
GUN VIOLENCE CLOSE TO HOME
A sophomore at Martin Luther King Jr. College Prep, Pendleton had performed with her school band eight days earlier at President Barack Obama's inauguration.
A "We the People" petition on the White House website signed by more than 1,000 people called on the president and his family to attend Pendleton's funeral. The first family's home is about a mile from the park where Pendleton was killed.
The back of the funeral program included a copy of a handwritten note from President Barack Obama to Hadiya's parents, Cowley-Pendleton and Nathaniel Anthony Pendleton:
"Dear Cleopatra and Nathaniel, Michelle and I just wanted you to know how heartbroken we are to have heard about Hadiya's passing. We know that no words from us can soothe the pain, but rest assured that we are praying for you and that we will continue to work as hard as we can to end this senseless violence. God Bless."
Across the street from the church, Lance Robinson, 16, a high school friend of Pendleton's, stood with two other friends. All three wore sweatshirts with "rest in peace Hadiya" on them.
"She always did want to change the world," Robinson said. "It's just a shame she had to die to do it."
Jacqueline Johnson, 49, of Chicago, said she believed the first lady's attendance was a positive thing.
"I think she's sending out a message (about Chicago violence) and hopefully it'll work," Johnson said.
Pendleton's death follows a massacre of 20 first graders and six adults at a Connecticut elementary school in December that inspired an intense U.S. debate about the easy availability of guns. In response, Obama has called for new restrictions on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines.
Pendleton's killing spurred calls from civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, who also attended Saturday's service, and the families of murder victims for Obama to address the gun violence in Chicago, the third largest city in the United States.
There were 506 homicides last year in Chicago, a 17 percent increase from the prior year, and 42 more victims in January, including Pendleton.
(Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton; Writing by David Bailey; Editing by Greg McCune and Todd Eastham)
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