Mourners’ emotional vigil for victims of US synagogue attack

Thousands of mourners held an emotional vigil Sunday for victims of a fatal shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue, an assault that saw a gunman who said he “wanted all Jews to die” open fire on a mostly elderly group.

The majestic auditorium of downtown Pittsburgh’s Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum was standing room only, brimming with people lining the walls and finding seats on the floor for the 90-minute ecumenical event that began with music from an African-American choir.

Speakers at the vigil said thousands more had gathered under a cold rain outside, listening in via loudspeaker.

A female cleric led an a capella rendition of the American national anthem, and a male cantor did the same for the Hatikvah — a Jewish poem and Israel’s national anthem.

Earlier Americans learned the identities of the 11 people killed in the brutal assault at the Tree of Life synagogue, a group that included a 97-year-old woman, an octogenarian couple and two brothers.

Nine of the 11 were 65 or older, several old enough to have been children during the rise of Nazism. They included Rose Mallinger, age 97, and couple Sylvan and Bernice Simon, both in their 80s.

“Words of hate are unwelcome in Pittsburgh,” said Rabbi Jeffrey Myers to a standing ovation, which he followed with a message to political leaders.

“Ladies and gentlemen, it has to start with you, our leaders,” he said. “My words are not intended as political fodder.”

“Stop the words of hate.”

The rabbi, who had helped pull people out of the sanctuary after shots rang out, chanted a memorial prayer in Hebrew, wiping his eyes with a handkerchief.

Similar events took place nationwide in tribute to the dead, as words of solace poured in from the US Jewish community — the largest outside Israel — but also from the pope and European leaders.

‘Heartbroken’

Federal officials said Sunday that 46-year-old suspect Robert Bowers — arrested at the synagogue after a firefight with police — faces 29 federal charges, many of them carrying the death penalty. He is to appear before a federal magistrate on Monday.

The assault on the 150-year-old congregation was the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in recent US history.

In Squirrel Hill, the close-knit neighbourhood and heart of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community where the shooting occurred, a hush descended.

“Heartbroken,” said Aylia Paulding, 37, her voice breaking as she summed up the grief-stricken mood.

Authorities described a 20-minute rampage that saw the gunman burst into the building early Saturday and open fire with an assault-style AR-15 rifle and two Glock handguns.

Four police officers or SWAT team members were injured, one critically. Bowers has been hospitalised in fair condition with multiple gunshot wounds.

E. Joseph Charny, 90, was worshipping in a room with a half-dozen other congregants when he saw a man appear in the doorway and heard shots ring out, he told The Washington Post.

“I looked up and there were all these dead bodies,” said Charny, a retired psychiatrist who has attended services at Tree of Life since 1955.

Trump and gun laws

President Donald Trump on Saturday solemnly denounced the attack, saying, “the scourge of anti-Semitism cannot be ignored, cannot be tolerated and cannot be allowed to continue.”

But Sunday he characteristically blamed the media for stoking tensions: “The Fake News is doing everything in their power to blame Republicans, Conservatives and me for the division and hatred that has been going on for so long in our Country.”

“Actually, it is their Fake & Dishonest reporting which is causing problems far greater than they understand!” he said.

And earlier the Republican leader said one answer to apparent hate crimes was to provide guards at places of worship, not to tighten gun laws.

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto disagreed.

“The approach that we need to be looking at is how we take the guns, which is the common denominator of every mass shooting in America, out of the hands of those that are looking to express hatred through murder,” he told journalists Sunday.

Trump said he would travel to Pittsburgh to express his condolences.

But some victims’ families reportedly have little desire to see a president blamed by many critics for fanning hatred.

Jonathan Greenblatt, director of the Anti-Defamation League civil rights group that combats anti-Semitism, said he was encouraged by Trump’s words after Pittsburgh but also sounded a note of warning.

Anti-Semitic acts in the United States rose sharply in recent years, ADL figures show, by 34 percent in 2016 over 2015, and by a further 57 percent in 2016, “the single largest surge that we’ve ever seen” according to Greenblatt.

“It isn’t what you say after the tragedy that only matters,” he said. “It’s the environment that you create with your rhetoric.”

Heightened tensions

Saturday’s attack came at a time of heightened tensions — a day after a Trump supporter from Florida was arrested for mailing explosive devices to Democrats and liberals, setting the country on edge ahead of close-fought elections on November 6.

Bowers lived in the Baldwin Borough suburb of Pittsburgh, less than half an hour’s drive south of the Tree of Life synagogue.

He reportedly worked as a trucker, and has been linked to a rash of anti-Semitic online posts, notably on Gab.com, a site frequented by white nationalists.

According to a criminal complaint filed Saturday, he told police he “wanted all Jews to die and that they (Jews) were committing genocide to his people.”

© Agence France-Presse

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Jennie Matthew
Matthews is an AFP New York correspondent. Previously in Pakistan/Afghanistan, Sudan and Middle East

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