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Hamburg holds service for Jehovah's Witness shooting victims

March 19, 2023

Followers of the unorthodox Christian group did not attend the remembrance, organized by Catholic and Protestant churches. Earlier this month, seven people were shot dead by a former member of the congregation.

Flowers and messages were left outside the Jehovah's Witnesses center in Hamburg on March 19, 2023
Local residents left flowers and messages outside the Jehovah's Witnesses center in Hamburg on SundayImage: Marcus Brandt/dpa/picture alliance

A service was held Sunday at the main cathedral in the northern German city of Hamburg for the victims of a deadly shooting at a Jehovah's Witnesses center 10 days earlier.

On March 9, a 35-year-old former member of the congregation, identified only as Philipp F under German privacy norms, shot dead six adults, also killing an unborn child. The gunman then killed himself as police gave chase. 

Attendees urged not to give in to cynicism

During Sunday's ecumenical service, Catholic Archbishop Stefan Hesse called on those present at Hamburg's St Peter's Cathedral not to give up hope for a more peaceful world.

"The more insurmountable the difficulties and the bleaker the prospects for security and peace seem, the more insistent our prayers must be and the more we must stand together in this city," Hesse said.

In her sermon, Protestant Bishop Kirsten Fehrs paid tribute to the dedication of police officers, rescue workers and emergency chaplains who responded to the shootings.

"For me, God was present — in you, dressing wounds, recovering the dead, hugging the frightened, reassuring neighbors," Fehrs told attendees.

Hamburg's first mayor Peter Tschentscher, the president of the city's parliament Carola Veit and police chief Ralf Martin Meyer also took part in the service. 

Jehovah's Witnesses acknowledged support but stayed away

Representatives of Jehovah's Witnesses, who do not engage in dialogue with other religious communities, did not attend. 

But the group did acknowledge the sympathy of fellow Hamburg residents in a letter.

The memorial service was organized by the Catholic and Protestant churches and the Association of Christian Churches, who affirmed that it could not and would not replace the community's own commemoration.

The Jehovah's Witnesses plan to hold their own memorial service next weekend in accordance with their beliefs.

Forensic experts stand at a Jehovah's Witness building in Hamburg, Germany on March 10, 2023
Seven people were killed when a man opened fire at the Jehovah's Witnesses center in HamburgImage: Markus Schreiber/AP/picture alliance

Authorities' failings over gunman revealed

Hamburg authorities have been criticized for failing to respond thoroughly enough to an anonymous tipoff about the gunman and his possible psychological issues.

Local weapons authorities paid an unannounced visit to Philip F's home but found no reason to confiscate his gun, which he had a license for as a registered hunter.

German media reported last week that the tipoff also referred to a book that the gunman had released in December 2022.

Authorities struggled to locate the text even though it was self-published on Amazon and was linked from both the shooter's website and his LinkedIn page.

The book is almost 300 pages long and could be seen to include his justification for the shootings as, at one point, he wrote that mass murder on behalf of God was legitimate. The text also contains several anti-Semitic statements and asserts that Adolf Hitler was a tool of Christ.

Philip F. had left the Jehovah's Witnesses about 18 months ago on bad terms.

According to Evangelical Central Office for Questions of World View, the community's doctrine is based on a literal interpretation of biblical texts.

At the center is the expectation of the imminent end of the world, in which supposedly only particularly pious people survive. 

Critics accuse the religious group of expecting blind obedience from its followers and leaving no room for objections. 

Dropouts often report that it is very difficult to leave the community. 

mm/msh (dpa, epd)

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