A police officer walks next to a police vehicle and an undertakers' vehicle outside a building housing a Kingdom Hall of Jehovah's Witnesses after a deadly shooting, in Hamburg, northern Germany, March 10, 2023. Image Credit: REUTERS

HAMBURG, Germany: A former member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses shot dead seven people, including an unborn child, at a hall belonging to the congregation in the German city of Hamburg before killing himself after police arrived, authorities said Friday.

Eight people were wounded, four of them seriously.

There was no immediate indication of a possible motive for Thursday night’s attack, which stunned Germany’s second-biggest city, but prosecutors said there was no evidence for a terrorist link. Chancellor Olaf Scholz, a former Hamburg mayor, described it as “a brutal act of violence.”

Hamburg’s top security official said officers who arrived just minutes after receiving the first emergency call at 9:04pm. A special operations unit that was nearby reached the site at 9:09 and was able to separate the gunman from the congregation, Hamburg’s state Interior Minister Andy Grote said.

“We can assume that they saved many people’s lives this way,” he told reporters during a news conference. Grote called the shooting “the worst crime that our city has experience recently.”

100 rounds fired during the attack

Officials said the gunman was a 35-year-old German national identified only as Philipp F., in line with German privacy rules. He fired more than 100 rounds during the attack.

Hamburg police chief Ralf Martin Meyer said the man had a weapons license and legally owned a semi-automatic pistol. He said the suspected shooter was previously investigated after authorities received a tip that he might not be suitable to bear firearms, but was found not to have broken rules.

Police did not use their own firearms, a police spokesman said.

The head of Germany’s GdP police union in Hamburg, Horst Niens, said he was convinced that the swift arrival of a special operations unit “distracted the perpetrator and may have prevented further victims.”

Undertakers transport the body of a victim of a deadly shooting at a building housing a Kingdom Hall of Jehovah's Witnesses, in Hamburg, northern Germany, March 10, 2023. Image Credit: Reuters

Asked about a possible political response to the shooting, a spokesperson for Germany’s Interior Ministry, Maximilian Kall, said it was necessary to wait for the results of the investigations before drawing conclusions.

On Friday morning, forensic investigators in protective white suits could be seen outside the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Kingdom Hall, a boxy, three-story building next to an auto repair shop, a few kilometers (miles) from downtown Hamburg. As a light snow fell, officers placed yellow cones on the ground and windowsills to mark evidence.

David Semonian, a US-based spokesman for Jehovah’s Witnesses, said in an emailed statement early Friday that members “worldwide grieve for the victims of this traumatic event.”

“The congregation elders in the local area are providing pastoral care for those affected by the event,” he wrote.

Shootings are not unheard of
Germany’s gun laws are more restrictive than those in the United States, but permissive compared with some European neighbours, and shootings are not unheard of.
Last year, an 18-year-old man opened fire in a packed lecture at Heidelberg University, killing one person and wounding three others before killing himself.
In January 2020, a man shot dead six people including his parents and wounded two others in southwestern Germany, while a month later, a shooter who posted a racist rant online killed nine people near Frankfurt.
In the most recent shooting involving a site of worship, a far-right extremist attempted to force his way into a synagogue in Halle on Yom Kippur, Judaism’s holiest day, in October 2019. After failing to gain entry, he shot two people to death nearby.
The German government announced plans last year to crack down on gun ownership by suspected extremists and to tighten background checks. Currently, anyone wanting to acquire a firearm must show that they are suited to do so, including by proving that they require a gun. Reasons can include being part of a sports shooting club or being a hunter.

Police spokesman Holger Vehren said police were alerted to the shooting Thursday night and were at the scene quickly.

He said that the officers found people with apparent gunshot wounds on the ground floor, and then heard a shot from an upper floor, where they found a fatally wounded person who may have been a shooter. They did not fire their weapons.

Student Laura Bauch, who lives nearby, said there were around four periods of shooting, German news agency dpa reported. “There were always several shots in these periods,” she said.

Bauch said she looked out her window and saw a person running from the ground floor to the second floor of the Jehovah’s Witnesses hall.

Gregor Miebach, who lives within sight of the building, heard shots and filmed a figure entering the building through a window. In his footage, shots can then be heard from inside. The figure later apparently emerges from the hall, is seen in the courtyard and then fires more shots through a first floor window before the lights in the room go out.

Miebach told German television news agency NonstopNews that he heard at least 25 shots. After police arrived, one last shot followed, he said.

His mother, Dorte Miebach, said she was shocked by the shooting. “It’s really 50 meters (yards) from our house and many people died,” she said. “This is still incomprehensible. We still haven’t quite come to terms with it.

Who are Jehovah’s Witnesses?
Jehovah’s Witnesses are part of an international church, founded in the United States in the 19th century and headquartered in Warwick, New York.
It claims a worldwide membership of about 8.7 million, with about 170,000 in Germany. Members are known for their evangelistic efforts that include knocking on doors and distributing literature in public squares. The denomination’s practices include a refusal to bear arms, receive blood transfusions, salute a national flag or participate in secular government.
The international Christian denomination founded in the United States has a more than 100-year history in Germany. Today, about 170,000 members call the European country home, according to the denomination’s website.
The denomination itself dates back to the 19th century. It was founded by Charles Taze Russell, a minister from Pittsburgh. Now headquartered in Warwick, New York, it claims a worldwide membership of about 8.7 million. Members are known for their evangelistic efforts including knocking on doors and distributing literature in public squares.
Here is a quick look at their beliefs and their history in Germany:
— In Germany, there are about 2,020 Jehovah’s Witness congregations and 170,491 ministers. One in 498 Germans practice the faith, according to the denomination’s website.
— Jehovah’s Witnesses do not call their place of worship a church, but “Kingdom Hall.” This is because they believe the Bible refers to worshippers -- not the building -- as the church. The building or hall where congregants meet to worship Jehovah (the God of the Bible and His Kingdom) is therefore known as “Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
— Jehovah’s Witnesses do not use the cross in worship because they believe the Bible indicates that Jesus did not die on a cross, but on a simple stake, and that the Bible “strongly warns Christians to flee from idolatry, which would mean not using the cross in worship,” the denomination’s website states.
— Each congregation is supervised by a body of elders. About 20 congregations make up a circuit and are occasionally visited by traveling elders known as circuit overseers.
— On January 27, 2021, the German State Parliament commemorated the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ courageous stand against Nazi abuse. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the ceremony was hosted online and was viewed by more than 37,000 people from Austria, Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland.
— About 1,500 Jehovah’s Witnesses died during the Holocaust out of about 35,000 who lived in Germany and Nazi-occupied countries at the time. More than 1,000 died in prisons and concentration camps. Members of the faith were persecuted by the Nazi regime because they remained politically neutral. They also refused to sign a document renouncing their beliefs and disobeyed the regime’s orders by continuing to meet for worship, doing public ministry and showing kindness to Jewish people.
— On Jan. 27, 2017, Jehovah’s Witnesses received the same legal status that is granted to major religions in Germany, which meant they are viewed as a single religious entity. Prior to gaining this status, their national headquarters in Germany and thousands of congregations in the country were considered independent religious associations.
— In the US, Jehovah’s Witnesses suspended door-knocking in the early days of the pandemic’s onset, just as much of the rest of society went into lockdown too. The organization also ended all public meetings at its 13,000 congregations nationwide and canceled 5,600 annual gatherings worldwide — an unprecedented move not taken even during the Spanish Flu pandemic in 1918, which killed 50 million people worldwide.