VOA News/Steve Herman
WHITE HOUSE — A man yelling “all these Jews must die” burst into a Pittsburgh synagogue during Sabbath services Saturday, shooting indiscriminately and killing 11 congregants in the latest mass shooting in the United States.
Six people, including a police officer who confronted the attacker, were wounded, according to officials, who say two of the civilian victims are in critical condition.
This is “likely the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in the history of the United States,” according to the Anti-Defamation League.
The White House has ordered all U.S. flags on government property to be flown at half-staff through Oct. 31 “as a mark of solemn respect for the victims of the terrible act of violence.”
The Federal Bureau of Investigation is taking the lead, investigating the shooting as a hate crime.
The suspect in custody, 46-year-old Robert Bowers, from just south of the city of Pittsburgh, is in fair condition with multiple gunshot wounds, according to Pittsburgh Public Safety Director Wendell Hissrich.
Federal prosecutors have charged Bowers with 29 criminal counts, including violence and firearms offenses, and violating U.S. civil rights laws.
“We are dedicating the entire resources of my office to this federal hate crime investigation and prosecution” said Scott Brady, the U.S. attorney for western Pennsylvania.
Authorities say the suspect was armed with an assault rifle and three handguns when he entered the synagogue where about 80 people had gathered for weekly worship, as well as a circumcision ceremony.
Social media posts attributed to Bowers indicated his hatred of Jews.
In a message he apparently posted just minutes before the attack, he stated that a Jewish refugee agency, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, or HIAS, “likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t wait while my people are getting slaughtered … I’m going in.”
HIAS, founded in 1881, is one of nine national refugee resettlement agencies that partners with the U.S. government to resettle refugees as part of the U.S. refugee admissions programs. HIAS said in a statement that it “rescues people whose lives are in danger for being who they are.”
The FBI special agent in charge in Pittsburgh, Bob Jones, told a news conference, “We have no knowledge that he was known to law enforcement before today.”
Jones added that the synagogue mass shooting is the “most horrific crime scene” he has seen in his 22 years with the FBI.
“The vile, hate-filled poison of anti-Semitism must be condemned,” U.S. President Donald Trump declared.
“Our minds cannot comprehend the cruel hate and the twisted malice that could cause a person to unleash such terrible violence during a baby-naming ceremony — this was a baby-naming ceremony — at a sacred house of worship on the holy day of Sabbath,” Trump told the FFA, formerly known as the Future Farmers of America, at their national convention in Indiana.
During his speech, the president told the young people that he had contemplated canceling his public events today, including a political rally in Illinois, but decided that “I will go to Illinois, and we’ll keep our schedule the way it’s supposed to be, and we should all do that, and I maybe recommend that to others also.”
Asked later by a reporter on the tarmac of Southern Illinois Airport about the suspect’s social media posts, Trump declared that “he was no supporter of mine,” describing Bowers as “a very anti-Semitic man. His thought process is sick. We have to bring back the death penalty for people like this.”
At a political rally in Murphysboro, Illinois, the president told the partisan crowd he would be toning down, for the evening, his trademark criticism of political opponents amid the somber national mood.
The Pittsburgh shooting was “a monstrous killing of Jewish Americans,” Trump said. “This evil anti-Semitic attack is an assault on all of us. It’s an assault on humanity.”
The president vowed that the “scourge of anti-Semitism cannot be allowed to continue,” adding that “we must stand with our Jewish brothers and sisters to vanquish anti-Semitism.”
The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America said in a statement that the synagogue shootings were “not only an egregious attack on the Jewish community, but an attack on the very foundations of civil society and our collective democratic values.”
At a news conference Saturday afternoon, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf told reporters, “In the aftermath of the tragedy, we must all come together and we must take action to prevent these tragedies in the future. We simply cannot accept this violence as a normal part of American life.”
“All of us have to fight the rise of anti-Semitism and hateful rhetoric against those who look, love or pray differently,” said former President Barack Obama. “And we have to stop making it so easy for those who want to harm the innocent to get their hands on a gun.”
Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, said, “Today, we saw another horrific act of hate at a house of worship … It reminds us of the slaughter of nine African American worshippers at Charleston’s Mother Emmanuel Church in 2015, the killings of six Sikh worshippers at a temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, in 2014, and, of course, the bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963 that left four young African American girls dead. The violence in Pittsburgh follows on the heels of a string of attempted pipe bombings by a white supremacist who targeted frequent critics of President Trump. Our hearts go out to the families of the most recent shootings.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who graduated from high school in Pennsylvania, in a statement Saturday said, “I was heartbroken and appalled by the murderous attack on a Pittsburgh synagogue today.”
Several Sabbath services and the circumcision ceremony for an infant, on three levels of the building, were underway in the predominately Jewish neighborhood of Squirrel Hill at 9:30 a.m. local time when the first shots were fired, according to congregants.
Tree of Life traces its roots back to the beginning of organized Judaism in Pittsburgh in the mid-1860s and has occupied its current building since 1946.
VOA’s Marissa Melton contributed to this report.