Episcopal and Anglican leaders respond to anti-Semitic shooting at Pittsburgh synagogue

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A man reacts at a makeshift memorial outside the Tree of Life synagogue following Saturday's shooting at the synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S., October 29, 2018. REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, of the U.S.-based Episcopal Church, and Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby were among a number of Anglican leaders who joined Episcopal Bishop Dorsey McConnell, of Pittsburgh, in responding to the mass shooting at a synagogue, Saturday, October 27. Eleven people were killed and six more injured when a gunman shouting anti-Semitic phrases opened fire on worshippers at the Tree of Life—Or L’Simcha Congregation—in the Squirrel Hill district of Pittsburgh, Penn. The congregation were attending a Shabbat service combined with a brit milah, the Jewish initiation ceremony for baby boys.

The youngest of the victims was 54-year-old David Rosenthal. The eldest was 97-year-old Rose Mallinger. Four of the injured are police officers who attended the shooting. Police say that the suspect, 46-year-old Robert Bowers, was arrested when he surrendered to police after being shot by officers. He appeared in court in a wheelchair and has been remanded in custody until a second court appearance November 1. He was armed with an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle and three handguns. The AR-15 and its non-patented variants have been behind most of the mass-shootings in the U.S. in recent history.

“The newscasts, sickeningly, are referring again and again to this horror as a ‘tragedy.’ It is no such thing,” Pittsburgh Bishop McConnell said in response to the shooting. “A tragedy is inevitable. This was not. It was murder, murder of a particularly vile and poisonous kind.

“Human beings have moral agency. Someone chose to hate, and chose to kill. And now we are faced with a choice as well—to do nothing, or to reject this hatred in the strongest possible words and actions, and to refute in every way, in every forum, the philosophical foundations of anti-Semitism wherever they have gained a foothold in our churches and our society.”

Writing just hours after the shooting, McConnell asked Episcopal congregations in the diocese “to keep the people of Tree of Life, and their leadership, in our prayers.” He also called on churches to include a time of silent commemoration in their Sunday services.

“This terror is added to the great heap of such crimes we have witnessed in the past,” he said. “Yet our hope is not dimmed, and our obligation is clear: ‘Behold, I set before you this day, life and death, blessing and curse: therefore choose life, that you and your descendants may live’ (Deuteronomy 30:19).

“May we especially who bear the name of Christ be fierce in our love and unwavering in our courage, as we mourn with those who mourn, and work with others to lay the foundations for blessing, life and peace for all people.”

McConnell took part in a community gathering on Sunday evening at the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall in Pittsburgh, at which rabbis of the three congregations who met at the synagogue—Tree of Life, Dor Chadash and New Light—spoke alongside elected officials and leaders from different religious communities in the region.

Presiding Bishop Curry was attending the Iowa diocesan convention (synod) when news of the shooting emerged. “Our Jewish neighbours, our brothers and sisters, are fearful and we must stand with them and provide comfort and support for them and for all,” he said.

“It is reported that the gunman not only ranted anti-Semitic sayings, he has also ranted and spoke against immigrants and refugees and other peoples. We must pray: we must pray for him, we must pray for the spirit of our nation—that a spirit of love and compassion, and goodness and decency, will pervade; and that spirits of hatred and bigotry will be cast away.

“But above all at this time, pray for those who have died and for their families and their loved ones,” he said. “Pray for those who are wounded, pray for the first responders, pray for our brothers and sisters in the Jewish community, pray for the Tree of Life Synagogue, pray for the city of Pittsburgh, pray for America, pray for us all.

“And then go out and do something: do something that helps to end the long night and helps to bring in the daylight.

“Visit a neighbour. Remind our Jewish brothers and sisters that they do not stand alone. Care for someone. Love. Stand for what is right and good. And then pray, and then act, and then pray.”

Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, with the president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, Marie van der Zyl, following their recent meeting at Lambeth Palace.

Archbishop Welby said: “We stand together in deep sorrow and prayer with Jewish people everywhere as they mourn the victims of the Pittsburgh attacks. Such hatred is found globally and historically and must be resisted globally and eternally.”

Recently he met Marie van der Zyl, the recently elected president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews. “We discussed continuing to strengthen Christian-Jewish relations; resisting anti-Semitism and other discrimination; seeking the common good and supporting Israeli-Palestinian peace-building through projects like ‘Invest in Peace,’ ” he said afterwards.

The Archbishop of York, Dr. John Sentamu, responded to the tragedy by saying: “Lord of peace and justice, show your power and mercy to all the worshippers at the synagogue in Pittsburgh who witnessed such brutal anti-Semitic murders!

“Lord For How Long! Please let us all never respond to violence with violence on nights already devoid of stars. Together we say NO.”

On Sunday, the day after the shooting, Bishops Against Gun Violence—a coalition of more than 80 bishops in the U.S.-based Episcopal Church—issued a statement in which they called for the eradication of anti-Semitism. “It is too easy for us to become immune to the horrific reports of mass shootings and hate crimes that flood our airwaves. But let us not fall prey to that temptation,” the bishops said. “Let us hold the depth of this news in our hearts. A purportedly Christian man, reportedly a denizen of white supremacist websites and social media, stands accused of gathering an arsenal of weapons for the express purpose of ending the lives of people whose religion is different from his.”

The group said that it was “resolute that we will not remain silent while violence permeates our nation. Mass murder cannot be tolerated or normalised. Guns cannot be readily available to extremists who espouse hateful violence. Religious diversity cannot fall victim to extremists.

“We commit to empowering Episcopalians across the country to end the scourge of gun violence in our nation through education, advocacy, and public witness. We call upon people of all backgrounds, religions, and political affiliations to advocate for local, state and federal legislation that will stop this carnage in our communities.”

They added: “The use of Christian scripture and beliefs to justify hate and anti-Semitism is a gross abuse of the Gospel. We call on our dioceses, churches, and faithful, and all people of goodwill, to decry and work to eradicate racist hatred, white supremacy, anti-Semitism, and vilification of the ‘other’ that perpetuates violence.

“If you have not already been in contact with leaders in the Jewish community in your dioceses and neighbourhoods, we urge you to reach out to the leaders and members of those communities as soon as possible. If Jewish leaders or interfaith organisations are organising vigils or other actions, we urge you to participate.

“And once again, we call the church to join us in recommitting to the way of peace, justice, and life that our God calls us to. We have been in contact with and offer particular prayers for Bishop Dorsey McConnell and the Diocese of Pittsburgh as they seek to support their local Jewish community in its grief and pain. Most of all, we offer ourselves, our ministry, and our own prayerful witness to those who have endured the horror of gun violence in all of our communities so that together, we can drive away the spectre of hate with light and life.”

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