Mourners pack emotional vigil for victims of US synagogue attack

2018-10-29 09:38

Mourners held an emotional vigil on 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.

Americans had earlier learned the identities of the 11 people killed in the brutal assault at the Tree of Life synagogue, including 97-year-old Rose Mallinger and couple Sylvan and Bernice Simon, both in their 80s.

Nine of the victims were 65 or older.

READ: Group of Jewish leaders to Trump: You are part of the problem

The auditorium of downtown Pittsburgh's Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum was packed for the 90-minute vigil, which began with music from an African-American choir.

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

'Political fodder'

A female cleric led an a capella rendition of the national anthem and a male cantor read the Hatikvah - a Jewish poem and Israel's national anthem.

"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."

READ: Pittsburgh shooting victims remembered: 'The loss is incalculable'

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

Similar events took place nationwide, with words of solace pouring in from the US Jewish community - the largest outside Israel - as well as the pope and European leaders.

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 carrying the death penalty.

He has been hospitalised with multiple gunshot wounds but will 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.

'All these dead bodies'

Squirrel Hill, the close-knit neighbourhood and heart of Pittsburgh's Jewish community where the shooting occurred, was in shock.

"Heartbroken," said Aylia Paulding, 37, her voice breaking as she summed up the mood.

Authorities said the gunman burst into the building early on Saturday and opened fire with an AR-15 rifle and two Glock handguns in a 20-minute rampage.

Four police officers or SWAT team members were injured, one critically.

E Joseph Charny, 90, was worshipping in a room with a half-dozen people 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.

US President Donald Trump on Saturday denounced the attack, saying: "The scourge of anti-Semitism cannot be ignored, cannot be tolerated and cannot be allowed to continue."

But on Sunday he 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 tweeted.

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

'Common denominator'

However, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto told journalists: "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."

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 for fanning hatred, and a group of Jewish leaders from the city released an open letter on Sunday telling Trump he bears responsibility for the shooting.

Jonathan Greenblatt, director of the Anti-Defamation League, said he was encouraged by Trump's words after Pittsburgh but also sounded a note of caution.

Anti-Semitic acts in the US have risen sharply in recent years, ADL figures show.

"It isn't what you say after the tragedy that only matters," Greenblatt added. "It's the environment that you create with your rhetoric."

Saturday's attack came 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 Tree of Life.

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".

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