HAMBURG: A disgruntled former Jehovah’s Witness member shot dead six people of the Christian group’s congregation in the German city of Hamburg, before turning the gun on himself, authorities said. Eight other people were wounded, including four seriously, in Thursday evening’s attack, said Hamburg interior minister Andy Grote, calling it “the worst crime in our city’s recent history”.
Police identified the gunman as Philipp F., 35, a former member of the Christian group who left the community about 18 months ago “but apparently not on good terms”. Investigators were still seeking a motive for the killings, but there was no indication of a terrorist motive in the attack, said a senior prosecutor. An anonymous tip-off had been sent to the weapons control authority in January this year, claiming that Philipp F. may have been suffering from an undiagnosed psychological illness and that he had a “particular anger against religious members or against the Jehovah’s Witnesses and his former employer”.
Raids following the shooting on the gunman’s apartment uncovered 15 magazines loaded with 15 bullets each and four further packs of ammunition with about 200 rounds. Police said the gunman had fired several shots at a car after noticing the driver maneuvering the vehicle as he was headed for the Kingdom Hall building. The woman escaped with light injuries and contacted police.
The assailant shot at a window through which he entered the building and began firing on the congregation of around three dozen people present at the service with another 25 people participating on livestream. The first distress calls reached emergency services at 9:04 pm local time (2004 GMT) on Thursday, and police forced their way into the Jehovah’s Witnesses building minutes later.
The police action interrupted the shooting, prompting the attacker to flee to the first floor of the building where he killed himself, said Grote. “We can assume that (the rapid police action) saved many lives,” he added. Police had initially said the shooting left eight people dead, but that included the gunman and a seven-month-old fetus killed in the attack. The woman pregnant with the baby has survived and was counted among the wounded.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses in Germany association said it was “deeply saddened by the horrific attack on its members”. Chancellor Olaf Scholz condemned the “brutal act of violence” and said his thoughts were with the victims and their loved ones.
Interior Minister Nancy Faeser said investigators were “working flat-out to determine the background” to the attack. In a public television interview on Friday, Faeser spoke in favour of tougher legislation on carrying firearms in Germany. A bill now being drafted seeks to make a medical certificate a requirement for a permit to carry weapons, she said. But without evidence of unfitness to bear arms, it is “very, very difficult” to intervene after a permit has been granted, she said.
Neighbors recalled hearing multiple shots fired late Thursday. “Our son filmed the whole thing, he could see quite well from the house,” Bernd Miebach, a 66-year-old business owner, told AFP. “On the video you can see that someone broke a window, you can hear shots fired and see that someone broke in.” Police have asked witnesses to come forward and upload any pictures or videos they may have to a special website. Another resident said police arrived on the scene within “four or five minutes”. “We heard shots and we knew something big was happening,” said the woman, who gave only her first name Anetta.
She said she knew the building was used by members of the Jehovah’s Witness community, describing them as “very peaceful, quiet”. The three-storey building was still cordoned off on Friday with several officers standing outside. Hearses arrived at around midday, and at least four bodies were carried out from the building, an AFP reporter said. Germany has about 175,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses, including 3,800 in Hamburg. The US Christian movement, set up in the late 19th century and which preaches non-violence, is known for door-to-door evangelism. — AFP