Faith leaders have condemned the mass shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue yesterday, with Christians and Muslims lining up to express solidarity with the victims.
A gunman yelling, ‘All Jews must die,’ stormed the Tree of Life synagogue during Saturday services, killing 11 worshippers and wounding six other people including four police officers, before he was arrested.
Robert Bowers, 46, of Pittsburgh, was taken into custody after a shootout with a SWAT team. Federal prosecutors charged him with 29 criminal counts including violence and firearms offences, and violating US civil rights laws.
Dr Ronnie Floyd, senior pastor of Cross Church, said: ‘Please join me in praying for the victims and the families of all affected by today’s terrible shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, including the three police officers who were injured trying to stop this attack. This was an act of pure and outright hatred, and it should be condemned by all of us. Anti-Semitism should have no place in America.’
Rabbi Tuly Weisz, director of Israel365 and editor of The Israel Bible, said: ‘There is a long, bloody history of Jews being murdered in our houses of worship. What is new is that this is happening in America in 2018. It is jarring, horrible and should be a wake-up call that terror needs to be obliterated everywhere.
‘People all over the world must stand together against religiously motivated terrorism.
‘As an Orthodox rabbi who has dedicated his life to building bridges between Jews and our Christian friends, I call on lovers of Israel everywhere to stand in unity and pray for these families whose loved ones were killed, and to fulfill the words of the Prophet Isaiah, “Comfort, oh comfort My people, says your God.”‘
In the city on Saturday night, mourners held a candlelit vigil for the victims under light rain. The Islamic Center Of Pittsburgh offered its deepest sympathy and condolences, and called on its community to donate blood.
The Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC) also issued a statement. ‘We are sickened by this horrific attack at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh’s historic Jewish neighborhood. Our thoughts and prayers are with families of the dead and injured as well as the rest of the congregation and Jewish community,’ Rabbi Marvin Hier and Abraham Cooper said in a statement released on Saturday night in Austria. The rabbis will be leading a memorial programme at Mauthausen Concentration Camp on Sunday morning.
Other evangelicals to respond included Dr Robert Jeffress, pastor of the 13,000-member First Baptist Church of Dallas, who said: ‘I know that Christians everywhere will join me in praying for the victims of this tragedy, in expressing our solidarity with the Jewish people, and deploring antisemitism in any form.’ Rev Dr Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, said: ‘As Americans, and as a fellow community of faith, we can testify that nothing is quite as despicable, horrifying or barbaric as when worshippers of any tradition or creed are targeted for what they believe, or as is the tragic reality today, senselessly murdered for it. We at the NHCLC stand in unity with the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, as well as the larger Jewish community throughout America, and affirm our deeply shared kinship and love – unbreakable bonds that span millennia.’
US Attorney General Jeff Sessions has said federal prosecutors could seek the death penalty if Bowers is found guilty.
FBI special agent Bob Jones said the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which is leading the probe, said the crime scene was the worst he had seen in 22 years with the FBI. He said he believed Bowers was acting alone, adding: ‘We have no knowledge that he was known to law enforcement before today.’
KDKA television cited police sources as saying Bowers walked into the building and yelled ‘All Jews must die.’
Bowers had made many antisemitic posts online, including one early on Saturday. In another, he slammed US President Donald Trump for doing nothing to stop an ‘infestation’ of the United States by Jews.
Jones said Bowers was armed with an assault rifle and three handguns. He said authorities believed the suspect entered the synagogue, murdered the worshippers and was leaving when he encountered a uniformed police officer. The pair exchanged gunfire, Jones said, and Bowers reentered the building before a SWAT team arrived. After a shootout, he surrendered.
Bowers was taken to a hospital where he was listed in fair condition with multiple gunshot wounds. Victims taken to area hospitals included a 61-year-old woman, a 70-year-old man, and a 55-year-old officer. No children were killed, authorities said.
Three police officers were shot and one was injured by shrapnel, authorities said. Two of the six people injured were in critical condition.
Raging against ‘invaders’
A social media post by Bowers on Saturday morning said a Jewish refugee organisation, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, ‘likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.’
The comment was posted on Gab, a Philadelphia, Pennsylvania-based social networking service created as an alternative to Twitter. In a statement, Gab.com confirmed the profile belonged to Bowers and also said it had suspended the account and contacted the FBI about it.
The mass shooting prompted security alerts at houses of worship around the country. It follows a spate of pipe bombs found mailed in recent days to prominent political figures, mostly Democrats including former President Barack Obama.
The Tree of Life synagogue in the city’s Squirrel Hill neighbourhood, a heavily Jewish area, was holding a Shabbat religious service at the time of the shooting.
Police are normally only present at the synagogue for security on high holidays, Michael Eisenberg, former president of the synagogue, told KDKA.
‘On a day like today, the door is open, it’s a religious service, you can walk in and out,’ he said.
Around the time, three congregations amounting to about 100 people would have been using the building, Eisenberg said.
Shortly after reports of the shooting emerged, Trump said in a tweet he was watching what he described as a ‘devastating’ situation.
Trump told reporters later that the killings might have been prevented if there had been an armed guard in the building.
‘If they had some kind of a protection inside the temple maybe it could have been a much more different situation, they didn’t,’ he said when asked if there was any link to US gun laws.
He also called the shooting a wicked act of pure evil, called on Americans to rise above hate, and ordered US flags at the White House and public buildings to be flown at half-staff. He said he would visit Pittsburgh, but did not say when.
The Anti-Defamation League and Jewish Council for Public Affairs described it as the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in the history of the United States.