Interfaith Vigils Honor Victims of Pittsburgh Synagogue Attack

Thousands of people gathered Sunday in Pittsburgh for a memorial service where religious and civic leaders came together with a message of resiliency, tolerance and unity following an attack at a synagogue that killed 11 people.

The suspected gunman, 46-year-old Robert Bowers, is due to go before a federal judge Monday. He is facing 29 federal charges, including some federal hate crimes, and could face the death penalty if convicted.

The Anti-Defamation League, which has tracked hatred and violence against Jews since the 1970s, says Saturday’s massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue was the worst attack against the Jewish community in U.S. history.

Rabbis were joined by leaders from other faiths at the University of Pittsburgh for the memorial service Sunday where Rabbi Jonathan Perlman declared, “What happened yesterday will not break us, it will not ruin us.”

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto called the attack “the darkest hour of our city’s history,” but said the people there are resilient.

​”We will work together as one. We will defeat hate with love. We will be a city of compassion, welcoming to all people no matter what your religion, or where your family came from on this earth, or your status,” Peduto said.

Rabbi Jeffrey Myers declared words of hate unwelcome in Pittsburgh and called on political leaders to set an example.

“It starts with everyone in this room. And I want to address for a moment some of our political leaders who were here. Ladies and gentlemen, it has to start with you as our leaders,” Myers said. “Stop the words of hate. My mother always taught me: if you don’t have anything nice to say, say nothing. If it comes from you, Americans will listen.”

Interfaith vigils took place in many other places across the United States and in Canada on Sunday. A number of National Football League games held moments of silence before kickoff.

The Vancouver Canucks professional hockey team also paused before their game with the Pittsburgh Penguins in Vancouver to remember the dead.

The Eiffel Tower in Paris was darkened Sunday night. 

President Donald Trump ordered flags on U.S. government buildings to be flown at half-staff for three days to honor the victims.

He called the move “a mark of solemn respect for the victims of the terrible act of violence.”

Documents outlining the allegations against him say Bowers was armed with an AR-15 assault rifle and three handguns. He said that he wanted all Jews to die because he believed Jews “were committing genocide to his people.” That apparently refers to his belief that a Jewish refugee agency is helping foreign nationals enter the U.S. and that it endangers non-Jews in America.

In a message he apparently posted online just minutes before the attack, Bowers said the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, “likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t wait while my people are getting slaughtered…I’m going in.” 

Officials said the victims included eight men and three women ranging in age from 54 to 97 years old. Six people were wounded, including four police officers, before Bowers was found barricaded inside the synagogue, shot, and arrested. He is recovering from his wounds. 

The FBI said Bowers was not previously known to law enforcement, but apparently had posted a string of anti-Semitic threats online, particularly on the Gab.com website, where conspiracy theories are common.

Gab, which bills itself as the “free speech” alternative to Twitter and Facebook, has become a popular place to post content unwelcome or prohibited on other platforms. Gab responded with a statement Sunday:

“We refuse to be defined by the media’s narratives about Gab and our community,” it said. “Gab’s mission is very simple: to defend free expression and individual liberty online for all people.

On top of Bowers’ page, one quote said, “Jews are the children of Satan,” according to screenshots of the now-suspended account released by the SITE Intelligence Group, which tracks extremist views.

World leaders denounced the attack, deploring it as an affront to humanity.

Trump told a political rally late Saturday, “This evil, anti-Semitic attack is an assault on all of us. We must stand with our Jewish brothers and sisters to defeat anti-Semitism and vanquish the forces of hate.”

Former U.S. President Barack Obama said, “We grieve for the Americans murdered in Pittsburgh. All of us have to fight the rise of anti-Semitism and hateful rhetoric against those who look, love, or pray differently. And we have to stop making it so easy for those who want to harm the innocent to get their hands on a gun.”

Pope Francis at the Vatican called the massacre an “inhuman act of violence.” He prayed “to help us to extinguish the flames of hatred that develop in our societies.” 

In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, “It is hard to overstate the horror of the murder of Jews who congregate on the Sabbath and who were murdered only because they were Jews. On my behalf, on behalf of the government of Israel and the nation of Israel I convey our heartfelt condolences to the families that have lost dear ones. We all pray for the speedy recovery of the wounded.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel called the assault an act of “blind anti-Semitic hatred,” while United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres called for a united world effort “to roll back the forces of racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and other forms of racism.”

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