A man suspected of bursting into a Pittsburgh synagogue during a baby-naming ceremony and gunning down 11 people has been charged with murder, in the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in recent US history.
The suspect – identified as a 46-year-old Robert Bowers – reportedly yelled “All Jews must die” as he sprayed bullets into the Tree of Life synagogue during Sabbath services on Saturday before exchanging fire with police, in an attack that also wounded six people.
He was taken into custody and transferred to hospital before being charged by US prosecutors over the bloodshed, including 11 counts of using a firearm to commit murder and 11 counts of obstructing the exercise of religion resulting in death.
President Donald Trump denounced “a wicked act of mass murder”, while his daughter Ivanka, a convert to Judaism, declared: “America is stronger than the acts of a depraved bigot and anti-Semite.”
“This evil anti-Semitic attack is an assault on all of us,” Trump told supporters at an election rally in Illinois, where he drew loud cheers as he vowed to fully enforce the death penalty for such crimes.
“We must stand with our Jewish brothers and sisters to defeat anti-Semitism and vanquish the forces of hate.”
Trump said he would soon travel to Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania, where hundreds held a candlelit vigil late on Saturday.
The president ordered all flags at the White House and at public grounds, military posts and naval stations to be flown at half-staff through October 31 as a mark of “solemn respect” for the victims.
Stephen Weiss, a 60-year-old member of the congregation, described hearing dozens of shots coming from the synagogue’s front lobby.
“We had services going on in the chapel when we heard a loud noise,” he told the Tribune-Review newspaper. “I recognised it as gunshots.”
Authorities said Bowers was armed with an assault rifle and at least three handguns when he opened fire shortly before 10:00am (9pm in Cambodia) on Saturday.
Wendell Hissrich, Pittsburgh’s public safety director described the scene after the attack as “horrific”.
“One of the worst that I’ve seen. I’ve been on plane crashes,” said Hissrich, who confirmed that 11 people were killed, and six injured.
No children were among the casualties.
“Hate Has No Home Here,” read a placard in a simple memorial, next to a heart-shaped US flag – the same slogan was repeated in Hebrew and Arabic, with candles and bouquets of pink roses and carnations.
“It’s sickening. Outside of just the evil factor of it, who wakes up on a Saturday morning to do that?” said Pittsburgh chef Nathan, 42, who came to pay his respects but refused to give his second name.
The US is witnessing a sharp spike in anti-Semitic incidents, surging 57 per cent from 2016 to last year, to 1,986 from 1,267, according to the Anti-Defamation League, a civil rights group which has tracked anti-Semitism in the US since the 1970s.
The ADL said it believes the Pittsburgh shooting to be the deadliest such attack in US history.
“We are devastated,” said the group’s head Jonathan Greenblatt. “Our hearts break for the victims, their families, and the entire Jewish community.”
Bowers, who the FBI said was not previously known to law enforcement, appeared to be the author of a rash of anti-Semitic online posts, notably on the Gab.com website, where conspiracy theories are common.
A quote atop the Bowers page said “jews are the children of satan,” according to screenshots of the now-suspended account released by the Site Intelligence Group, which monitors extremist movements.
Bowers faces a total of 29 charges, which authorities said could carry the death penalty.
“The crimes of violence are based upon the federal civil rights laws prohibiting hate crimes,” a US prosecutor statement said.