Catholics, Jews say New York coronavirus restrictions violate religious rights

By Peter Szekely

NEW YORK (Reuters) – New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s recent measures to stem local outbreaks of the coronavirus have prompted demands from Catholics and Jews that courts void the restrictions because they limit religious freedom.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of New York of Brooklyn was set to hold hearing Thursday afternoon on a suit it filed in U.S. District Court in the borough on Oct. 8, while three Orthodox Jewish congregations filed suit on Thursday in U.S. District Court in Manhattan.

Both actions argue that the state’s restrictions on religious gatherings violate the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment right to freedom of religion.

Cuomo issued an order on Oct. 6 that shut down non-essential businesses and restricted gatherings at religious institutions to as few as 10 people in certain targeted areas, including some Brooklyn neighborhoods, where infections have spiked.

Cuomo insisted that his infection-fighting measures were not intended to single out religious groups and were consistent with other steps he has taken to combat geographic “clusters,” which he has defined as “red zones,” where infections spread rapidly.

But he also blamed the Orthodox Jewish communities for causing some of the infection spread in their areas.

“They never complied with any of the close-down rules going back to March,” he said in a briefing on Thursday. “That’s why some find it shocking, because they didn’t follow many of the rules all along.”

In their complaint which is laced with historical references to persecution, the Orthodox congregations said Cuomo has outlawed “all but the most minimal communal religious worship.”

“For Jews, communal worship is an essential service for which untold thousands have risked and sacrificed their lives,” the congregations — Ohalei Shem D’Nitra, Yesheos Yakov and Netzach Yisroel — said in a 33-page complaint.

Brooklyn’s Roman Catholic diocese, meanwhile, was rebuffed on Friday in its request for a temporary court order to bar the restrictions from taking effect.

But the diocese said its case was still alive, with U.S. District Court Judge Nicholas Garaufis having set a hearing for 2 p.m. EDT (1800 GMT) Thursday for arguments on its request for a longer-lasting preliminary injunction against the restrictions in 28 areas of Brooklyn and Queens.

In its complaint the diocese said it has complied with the state’s restrictions since the pandemic erupted in March, and that the new targeted measures are overly broad, infringing not only on worship services but also on ceremonies such as weddings and funerals.

“By causing the cancellation or severe curtailment of such services, the order would impose irreparable harm on the Diocese of Brooklyn and those it serves,” said the 22-page complaint.

The state’s targeted measures have sparked protests and occasional violence in some predominantly Hasidic Jewish areas of Brooklyn’s Borough Park neighborhood. In that area, more than 8% of coronavirus tests came back positive last week.

(Reporting by Peter Szekely; Additional reporting by Gabriella Borter; Editing by Tom Brown)

After UAE and Bahrain deals, is Saudi Arabia softening its stance on Israel?

By Marwa Rashad and Aziz El Yaakoubi

RIYADH/DUBAI (Reuters) – When one of Saudi Arabia’s leading clerics called this month for Muslims to avoid “passionate emotions and fiery enthusiasm” towards Jews, it was a marked change in tone for someone who has shed tears preaching about Palestine in the past.

The sermon by Abdulrahman al-Sudais, imam of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, broadcast on Saudi state television on Sept. 5, came three weeks after the United Arab Emirates agreed a historic deal to normalize relations with Israel and days before the Gulf state of Bahrain, a close Saudi ally, followed suit.

Sudais, who in past sermons prayed for Palestinians to have victory over the “invader and aggressor” Jews, spoke about how the Prophet Mohammad was good to his Jewish neighbor and argued the best way to persuade Jews to convert to Islam was to “treat them well”.

While Saudi Arabia is not expected to follow the example of its Gulf allies any time soon, Sudais’ remarks could be a clue to how the kingdom approaches the sensitive subject of warming to Israel – a once inconceivable prospect. Appointed by the king, he is one of the country’s most influential figures, reflecting the views of its conservative religious establishment as well as the Royal Court.

The dramatic agreements with the UAE and Bahrain were a coup for Israel and U.S. President Donald Trump.  But the big diplomatic prize for an Israel deal would be Saudi Arabia, whose king is the Custodian of Islam’s holiest sites, and rules the world’s largest oil exporter.

Marc Owen Jones, an academic from the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter, said the UAE and Bahrain’s normalization has allowed Saudi Arabia to test public opinion, but a formal deal with Israel would be a “large task” for the kingdom.

“Giving the Saudis a ‘nudge’ via an influential imam is obviously one step in trying to test the public reaction and to encourage the notion of normalization,” Jones added.

In Washington, a State Department official said the United States was encouraged by warming ties between Israel and Gulf Arab countries, viewed this trend as a positive development and “we are engaging to build on it.”

There was no immediate response to a request by Reuters for comment from the Saudi government’s media office.

Sudais’ plea to shun intense feelings is a far cry from his past when he wept dozens of times while praying for Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque – Islam’s third-holiest site.

The Sept. 5 sermon drew a mixed reaction, with some Saudis defending him as simply communicating the teachings of Islam. Others on Twitter, mostly Saudis abroad and apparently critical of the government, called it “the normalization sermon”.

Ali al-Suliman, one of several Saudis interviewed at one of Riyadh’s malls by Reuters TV, said in reaction to the Bahrain deal that normalization with Israel by other Gulf states or in the wider Middle East was hard to get used to, as “Israel is an occupying nation and drove Palestinians out of their homes”.

MUTUAL FEAR OF IRAN

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s de-facto ruler often referred to as MbS, has promised to promote interfaith dialogue as part of his domestic reform. The young prince previously stated that Israelis are entitled to live peacefully on their own land on condition of a peace agreement that assures stability for all sides.

Saudi Arabia and Israel’s mutual fear of Iran may be a key driver for the development of ties.

There have been other signs that Saudi Arabia, one of the most influential countries in the Middle East, is preparing its people to eventually warm to Israel.

A period drama, “Umm Haroun” that aired during Ramadan in April on Saudi-controlled MBC television, a time when viewership typically spikes, centered around the trials of a Jewish midwife.

The fictional series was about a multi-religious community in an unspecified Gulf Arab state in the 1930’s to 1950’s. The show drew criticism from the Palestinian Hamas group, saying it portrayed Jews in a sympathetic light.

At the time, MBC said that the show was the top-rated Gulf drama in Saudi Arabia in Ramadan. The show’s writers, both Bahraini, told Reuters it had no political message.

But experts and diplomats said it was another indication of shifting public discourse on Israel.

Earlier this year, Mohammed al-Aissa, a former Saudi minister and the general secretary of the Muslim World League, visited Auschwitz. In June, he took part in a conference organised by the American Jewish Committee, where he called for a world without “Islamophobia and anti-Semitism”.

“Certainly, MbS is intent on moderating state-sanctioned messages shared by the clerical establishment and part of that will likely work towards justifying any future deal with Israel, which would have seemed unthinkable before,” said Neil Quilliam, associate fellow with Chatham House.

ISOLATED PALESTINIANS

Normalization between the UAE, Bahrain and Israel, which will be signed at the White House on Tuesday, has further isolated the Palestinians.

Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, has not directly addressed Israel’s deals with the UAE and Bahrain, but said it remains committed to peace on the basis of the long-standing Arab Peace Initiative.

How, or whether, the kingdom would seek to exchange normalization for a deal on those terms remains unclear.

That initiative offers normalized ties in return for a statehood deal with the Palestinians and full Israeli withdrawal from territories captured in the 1967 Middle East war.

However, in another eye-catching gesture of goodwill, the kingdom has allowed Israel-UAE flights to use its airspace. Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, who has a close relationship with MbS, praised the move last week.

A diplomat in the Gulf said that for Saudi Arabia, the issue is more related to what he called its religious position as the leader of the Muslim world, and that a formal deal with Israel would take time and is unlikely to happen while King Salman is still in power.

“Any normalization by Saudi will open doors for Iran, Qatar and Turkey to call for internationalizing the two holy mosques,” he said, referring to periodic calls by critics of Riyadh to have Mecca and Medina placed under international supervision.

(Additional reporting by Davide Barbuscia, Alexander Cornwell in Dubai and Humeyra Pamuk in Washington; editing by Maha El Dahan, Michael Georgy and William Maclean)

German court convicts 93-year old man for Nazi crimes

By Madeline Chambers

BERLIN (Reuters) – A Hamburg court convicted a 93-year old German man of helping to murder 5,232 prisoners, many of them Jewish, at a Nazi concentration camp in World War Two and gave him a suspended two-year sentence in one of the last cases against Nazi-era crimes.

Rolled into the courtroom in a wheelchair and hiding his face behind a blue folder, Bruno D. acknowledged he had been an SS guard in the Stutthof concentration camp near Gdansk in what was then occupied Poland, but he said his presence did not amount to guilt.

This did not convince the court in Hamburg which found him guilty on Thursday of being involved in the killings from August 1944 to April 1945.

“How could you get used to the horror?” asked judge Anne Meier-Goering as she read the verdict.

About 65,000 people, including many Jews, were murdered or died at Stutthof, the museum’s website says. Prosecutors argued that many were shot in the back of the head or gassed with the lethal Zyklon B gas.

As Bruno D. was only 17-or-18 years old at the time of the crimes, he was tried in a youth court and sessions were limited to two to three hours per day due to his frail health. Prosecutors had called for a prison sentence of three years.

In his final testimony to the court, he apologized for the suffering of victims but stopped short of taking responsibility.

“I would like to apologize to all the people who have gone through this hell of insanity and to their relatives and survivors,” he told the court on Monday, broadcaster NDR and other media outlets reported.

Some 75 years after the Holocaust, the number of suspects is dwindling but prosecutors are still trying to bring individuals to justice. A landmark conviction in 2011 cleared the way to more prosecutions as working in a camp was for the first time found grounds for culpability with no proof of a specific crime.

(Reporting by Madeline Chambers, Editing by Michelle Martin and Angus MacSwan)

Watchdog reports record number of anti-Semitic incidents in U.S. last year

By Kanishka Singh

(Reuters) – Jews in the United States suffered the largest number of anti-Semitic incidents last year since the Anti-Defamation League began collecting records 40 years ago, the racism watchdog said on Tuesday.

The 2,107 anti-Semitic incidents recorded in 2019 in the United States included deadly attacks by gunmen at a California Synagogue and a New Jersey kosher grocery store, and a fatal stabbing at a rabbi’s home in New York.

It marked a 12% rise from 1,879 incidents in 2018. Previously, the highest number was recorded in 1994, when the ADL reported multiple unsolved arsons, cross burnings and a drive-by shooting.

The group’s audit of anti-Semitic incidents from 2019 counted 1,127 cases of harassment, 61 cases of physical assaults and 919 instances of vandalism. More than half of the assaults took place in New York City.

“This was a year of unprecedented anti-Semitic activity, a time when many Jewish communities across the country had direct encounters with hate,” ADL Chief Executive Officer Jonathan Greenblatt said.

In recent weeks the ADL has issued warnings of a continuing surge in incidents, saying conspiracy theories connected to the coronavirus outbreak could worsen anti-Semitism in the United States.

Greenblatt has also in the past partly blamed President Donald Trump for the rise in anti-Semitism, saying Trump should have done more to condemn incidents, including a far-right demonstration in Virginia in 2017 at which protesters chanted anti-Jewish slogans. One counter-protester was killed.

Among last year’s attacks, a gunman killed a worshiper and wounded three others during Sabbath services in Poway, California, near San Diego. Two gunmen killed a police officer and three bystanders before storming a kosher supermarket in New Jersey. Five people were wounded, one of whom later died, when an attacker broke into a rabbi’s house and stabbed Hanukkah celebrants in Rockland County, north of New York City.

In late 2018, a gunman killed 11 worshipers at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in U.S. history.

“We plan to work with members of Congress and other elected officials this year to ensure that funding is in place and that all states mandate Holocaust education, which can serve as an effective deterrent for future acts of hate,” the ADL CEO said on Tuesday.

(Reporting by Kanishka Singh in Bengaluru; Editing by Peter Graff)

Coronavirus crisis stoking anti-Semitism worldwide: report

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – The coronavirus crisis is stirring anti-Semitism around the world, fuelled by centuries-old lies that Jews are spreading infection, researchers in Israel said on Monday.

The findings, in the annual report on Anti-Semitism Worldwide by the Kantor Center at Tel Aviv University, showed an 18% rise in anti-Semitic incidents in 2019 over the previous year.

In the first few months of 2020, far-right politicians in the United States and Europe and ultra-conservative pastors have seized upon the health crisis and its resulting economic hardship to foster hatred against Jews, the researchers said.

“Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a significant rise in accusations that Jews, as individuals and as a collective, are behind the spread of the virus or are directly profiting from it,” said Moshe Kantor, president of the European Jewish Congress.

“The language and imagery used clearly identifies a revival of the mediaeval ‘blood libels’ when Jews were accused of spreading disease, poisoning wells or controlling economies,” he said during the report’s release.

Kantor said that as unemployment soars due to lockdowns to contain the coronavirus, “more people may seek out scapegoats, spun for them by conspiracy theorists”.

He called on world leaders to address the problem of growing extremism “already at our door”.

Severe and violent incidents against Jews worldwide rose to 456 in 2019 from 387 in 2018, and seven Jews were killed in anti-Semitic attacks last year, the report found.

In 2019, 122 major violent incidents against Jews were reported in Britain, followed by 111 in the United States, 41 in France and Germany and 33 in Australia, according to the findings.

Kantor said there had been a consistent rise in anti-Semitism over the least few years, especially online, and in mainstream society, politics and media.

He said the increased use of social media during the health crisis could facilitate the spread of conspiracy theories, “providing simplistic answers for the growing anxiety among the general public”.

(Reporting by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

As bigotry stirs globally, Bosnian Jews, Muslims recall lesson in tolerance

As bigotry stirs globally, Bosnian Jews, Muslims recall lesson in tolerance
By Maja Zuvela

SARAJEVO (Reuters) – Bosnia’s Jews and Muslims on Thursday marked the bicentenary of the rescue of a dozen Jews from an Ottoman-era governor’s jail, saying their liberation by Sarajevo Muslims is a great example of co-existence at a time of rising global sectarian hatred.

The 1819 rescue, which happened during a Muslim uprising, and consequent removal of corrupt Turkish governor Mehmed Ruzdi Pasha is a holiday for Sarajevo’s Jews, known as Purim di Saray. The governor had sought a huge ransom to spare the Jews’ lives.

The event was marked by a joint exhibition and conference depicting the events and celebrating nearly 500 years of peaceful coexistence between Jews and their Muslim neighbors, as well as between Jews and Orthodox Serbs and Catholic Croats.

“Bosnian Muslims and Jews are one body,” said Bosnia’s Muslim top cleric Husein Kavazovic.

“Amid the ever rising evil of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia … we are renewing our pledge that we will remain good neighbors who will watch over each other as we did in the past.”

The Muslim rebellion was recorded by renowned Sarajevo Jewish historian Mose Rafael Attias, also known as Zeki Effendi, in his book Sarajevo Megillah.

The book’s title is a reference to the Book of Esther, which is read aloud during the Jewish holiday of Purim. The holiday celebrates the Jews’ salvation from genocide in ancient Persia and is normally held in about March.

Attias studied Islam and mediaeval Persian literature and was a passionate interfaith advocate.

His tombstone, which has epitaphs in Bosnian, Hebrew and Turkish, the latter inscribed in Arabic script, has been renovated at the town’s Jewish cemetery as part of the Purim bicentenary.

“The tombstone itself is a proof of Sarajevo’s multiculturalism,” Eli Tauber, an author and historian, told Reuters. “Close links between our communities are unique. The way we mark Purim is also unprecedented and could serve as a role model to the rest of the world.”

Jews have played a significant role in Sarajevo’s cultural and economic life for 450 years. Expelled after the Christian re-conquest of the Iberian peninsula, they found sanctuary in the city, then part of the Ottoman Empire.

At the height of the city’s influence, Sarajevo had eight synagogues serving some 12,000 Jews. But most of them were killed during World War Two, when the city was occupied by Nazi Germany. Fewer than 1,250 remained.

The community recovered somewhat in the post-war era but was dealt another blow with Yugoslavia’s bloody collapse and the subsequent siege of Sarajevo, the longest in modern history.

Before the Bosnian 1992-95 war, Sarajevo was a multi-ethnic melting pot – mosques, churches and synagogues standing virtually side by side. It afterwards become predominantly Muslim, but some 800 Jews living in the town remain an important part of its multi-ethnic identity.

(Reporting by Maja Zuvela, Editing by William Maclean)

Gunman kills two in livestreamed attack at German synagogue

By Thomas Escritt and Stephan Schepers

BERLIN/HALLE, Germany (Reuters) – A gunman who denounced Jews opened fire outside a German synagogue on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year, and killed two people as he livestreamed his attack.

Several German media outlets said the perpetrator acted alone on Wednesday in the eastern German city of Halle. He fatally shot a woman outside the synagogue and a man inside a nearby kebab shop.

Two other people were seriously injured, but regional broadcaster MDR said their condition was not critical.

Police said they had detained one person, reported by German magazines Spiegel and Focus Online to be a 27-year-old German named Stephan B. His full name cannot be published under German privacy laws.

Video broadcast on Amazon’s gaming subsidiary Twitch showed a young man with a shaven head first reciting a short statement in broken English while sitting in a parked car.

“I think the Holocaust never happened,” he began, before adding “feminism is the cause of decline in birth rates in the West” and mentioning mass immigration. He concluded: “The root of all these problems is the Jew”, before embarking on his shooting spree.

A spokeswoman for Amazon said Twitch “worked with urgency to remove this content and will permanently suspend any accounts found to be posting or reposting content of this abhorrent act.”

The company later said its investigation suggested that “people were coordinating and sharing the video via other online messaging services,” but did not elaborate.

Reuters found copies and links to the footage posted on Twitter, 4chan and message boards focused on trolling and harassment, as well as multiple white supremacist channels on messaging app Telegram.

In the video, the man drove to the synagogue, found the gates shut and unsuccessfully sought to force the gates open. He then shot several rounds at a woman passerby.

“We saw via the camera system at our synagogue that a heavily armed perpetrator with a steel helmet and a gun tried to shoot open our doors,” Max Privorozki, Halle’s Jewish community chairman, told the Stuttgarter Zeitung newspaper.

“We barricaded the doors from inside and waited for the police,” he said, adding that about 70 to 80 people were inside the synagogue observing Yom Kippur, known as the Day of Atonement which is marked by fasting and solemn prayer.

The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung reported, without citing its source, that when he was detained the suspect had a wound to the neck and that security authorities suspected he had attempted suicide.

Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government voiced outrage over the attack on Yom Kippur and urged tougher action against anti-Semitic violence.

Merkel visited a Berlin synagogue as around 200 people, some holding Israeli flags and candles, held a vigil outside. Merkel’s spokesman tweeted: “We must oppose any form of anti-Semitism.”

‘CALM, LIKE A PROFESSIONAL’

Rifat Tekin, who worked at the Halle kebab outlet, said he was making a kebab for two construction workers when a perpetrator threw an explosive at the restaurant before shooting.

“He was very calm, like a professional,” Tekin told n-tv television. “He didn’t say anything. He just kept coming and shooting … I was hiding behind the salad counter.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sent condolences to the victims’ families and said in a Twitter post: “The terrorist attack against the community in Halle in Germany on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of our nation, is yet another expression that anti-Semitism is growing in Europe.”

“I call upon the authorities in Germany to continue to work determinedly against the phenomenon of anti-Semitism.”

Anti-semitism is a particularly sensitive issue in Germany, which during World War Two was responsible for the genocide of 6 million Jews in the Nazi Holocaust. Around 200,000 Jews live today in the country of around 83 million people.

Interior Minister Horst Seehofer said the shooting was anti-Semitic, adding: “According to the federal prosecutors’ office, there are enough indications that it was possibly a right-wing extremist motive.”

Despite comprehensive de-Nazification in the post-war era, fears of resurgent anti-Semitic hatred have never completely gone away, whether from fringe, far-right neo-Nazis or more recently from Muslim immigrants.

Occasional past attacks have ranged from the scrawling of Nazi swastikas on gravestones to firebombings at synagogues and even several murders. In recent years, cases of assault or verbal abuse, in some cases directed against people wearing traditional Jewish skullcaps, have raised an outcry.

(Additional reporting by Tassilo Hummel, Joseph Nasr, Thomas Escritt, Riham Alkousaa, Gabi Sajonz-Grimm, Michelle Martin, Elizabeth Culliford, Katie Paul and Stephen Farrell; Writing by Paul Carrel; Editing by Mark Heinrich, Cynthia Osterman and Tom Brown)

Synagogue attack sparks fear among Jews in Germany

By Joseph Nasr

BERLIN (Reuters) – As Jews left Yom Kippur prayers across Germany on Wednesday, they were jolted by word that an anti-Semitic gunman had attacked a synagogue in the eastern city of Halle hours before, killing two people.

The news heightened fears of more anti-Semitic violence in a nation still scarred by the Holocaust and witnessing the rise of the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) party.

“It’s very scary,” said Samuel Tsarfati, a 27-year-old stage director, as he left a Berlin synagogue with fellow French national Samuel Laufer.

The pair, who live and work in the German capital, had spent the holiest day in the Jewish calendar secluded in prayer and switched off their mobile phones for 25 hours of fasting.

Other members of Germany’s 200,000-strong Jewish community expressed similar alarm over the attack. After trying to blast into the Halle synogogue, a lone suspect killed a woman outside and a man in a nearby kebab shop.

“It’s not a coincidence it happened in east Germany. The far-right AfD is very strong there,” Tsarfati said. Leaders of the AfD, which made big gains in elections in two eastern states last month, condemned Wednesday’s attack in Halle.

Attacks on Jews rose by 20% last year and were mainly carried out by right-wing extremists. Even before the Halle shooting, a heavy police presence guarded the synagogue in the trendy suburb of Prenzlauer Berg where Tsarfati and Lauferis attended prayers.

Jews and German politicians have been particularly worried by comments by Bjoern Hoecke, the AfD leader of eastern Thuringia state, that the Holocaust memorial in Berlin is a “monument of shame” and that schools should highlight German suffering in World War Two.

“What happened today shows that the AfD should not be underestimated,” said Laufer. “AfD leaders like Hoecke don’t want to see that their words encourage some people to kill.”

Hoecke was among the AfD leaders to condemn the Halle attack.

The Halle gunman broadcast anti-Semitic comments before he opened fire. Several German media outlets said he acted alone although police have not confirmed this.

The far-right AfD entered the national parliament for the first time two years ago, riding a wave of anger at Chancellor Angela Merkel’s 2015 decision to welcome almost 1 million migrants. The party’s rise has alarmed Jewish leaders who condemn the party’s verbal attacks against Muslim migrants.

‘BLINDED BY HATRED’

Charlotte Knobloch, a Holocaust survivor and president of the Jewish Community in Munich, suggested that the AfD’s anti-immigrant rhetoric was contributing to an atmosphere of hate that encouraged political violence.

“This scary attack makes it clear how fast words can become acts of political extremism,” she said in a statement. “I’d be interested to know what that AfD has to say about such excesses, for which it had prepared the ground with its uncultured hate and incitement.”

At the gold-domed New Synagogue in Berlin’s city center about 200 people, including Muslim leaders, held a vigil, some carrying Israeli flags and others holding candles. Merkel visited the synagogue in the evening and took part in prayers.

Renate Keller, a 76-year-old attending the vigil with her husband, said the attack in Halle showed that Germany was not doing enough to fight anti-Semitism.

“It scares me that after the Holocaust some people have learned nothing from our history, which still weighs on us today,” she said. “People like the attacker have probably never met a Jew in their lives. They are just blinded by hatred.”

Josef Schuster, president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, warned of the incendiary potential far-right politics.

“It shows that right-wing extremism is not only some kind of political development, but that it is highly dangerous and exactly the kind of danger that we have always warned against.”

mtpi

(Reporting by Joseph Nasr; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

Two killed in shooting at synagogue in Germany, suspects flee in hijacked car

By Stephan Schepers

HALLE, Germany (Reuters) – Two people were killed in shooting attacks on a synagogue and a kebab bistro in the eastern German city of Halle on Wednesday and one suspect was arrested, but two others fled in a hijacked a car, officials said.

The violence occurred on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the calendar in Judaism when Jews fast, seeking atonement.

The two suspects on the loose headed out on a motorway that leads to Munich in the country’s south, according to the mayor of the town of Landsberg, adjacent to Halle. Gunfire was also heard in Landsberg, Focus Online reported.

A spokeswoman for the Halle municipal government said one shooting took place in front of the synagogue on Humboldt street and its accompanying cemetery, while a second burst of gunfire targeted the kebab shop in the city in the province of Saxony.

Max Privorozki, Halle’s Jewish community chairman, described how a gunman tried to shoot his way into the city’s synagogue.

“We saw via the camera system at our synagogue that a heavily-armed perpetrator with a steel helmet and a gun tried to shoot open our doors,” he told the Stuttgarter Zeitung newspaper. “The man looked like he was from the special forces…But our doors held.

“We barricaded the doors from inside and waited for the police,” he said, adding that about 70-80 people were inside the Humboldt street synagogue celebrating Yom Kippur.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government voiced outrage over the attack on Yom Kippur and urged tougher action against anti-Semitic violence.

“That on the Day of Atonement a synagogue was shot at hits us in the heart,” Foreign Minister Heiko Maas wrote on Twitter. “We must all act against anti-Semitism in our country.”

Anti-Semitism is a particularly sensitive issue in Germany, which during World War Two was responsible for the genocide of 6 million Jews in the Nazi Holocaust. Around 200,000 Jews live today in Germany, a country of around 83 million.

EMERGENCY

Another Halle city spokesman said an emergency situation had been declared and all residents advised to stay at home. He said that emergency services and police were evacuating people from the synagogue.

Broadcasters showed images of an alleged perpetrator dressed in combat garb including a helmet.

“Our forces have detained one person,” local police said on Twitter. “Please nonetheless remain vigilant.” Earlier, police tweeted: “According to initial findings, two people were killed in Halle. There were several shots.”

The identities of the victims were not immediately known.

An unnamed eyewitness told local media the assailant at the synagogue was dressed in combat gear including a helmet, and had thrown several explosive devices into the cemetery.

Another eyewitness, Conrad Roesler, described the attack on the kebab bistro. “He had an assault rifle and a helmet and suddenly he threw what looked like a grenade. It bounced off a door frame…Suddenly he picked up the rifle and fired at the shop…I hid in the toilet,” Roesler told n-tv television.

Regional public broadcaster MDR broadcast images of a man in combat clothing firing shots along a street from behind a car.

National rail operator Deutsche Bahn said the main train station in Halle had been closed.

“This is terrible news from Halle and I hope very much that the police catch the perpetrator, or perpetrators, as quickly as possible,” federal government spokesman Steffen Seibert said, interrupting a regular government news conference.

The federal prosecutors office said it was taking over the investigation, a procedural step which indicates a possible link to terrorism under German law.

In Berlin, the state interior senator advised police to step up security at Jewish institutions in the German capital.

Despite comprehensive de-Nazification in the post-war era, fears of resurgent anti-Semitic hatred have never completely gone away, whether from fringe, far-right neo-Nazis or more recently from Muslim immigrants.

Occasional past attacks have ranged from the scrawling of Nazi swastikas on gravestones to firebombings at synagogues and even several murders. In recent years, cases of assault or verbal abuse, in some cases directed against people wearing traditional Jewish skullcaps, have raised an outcry.

(Reporting by Tassilo Hummel, Joseph Nasr, Thomas Escritt and Riham Alkousaa, Gabi Sajonz-Grimm and Michelle Martin; Writing by Paul Carrel; Editing by Thomas Escritt and Mark Heinrich)

Portals to history and conflict: the gates of Jerusalem’s Old City

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Jews, Muslims and Christians pass daily through the gates of Jerusalem’s Old City, on their way to and from prayers or simply to go about their everyday business in one of the most politically sensitive spots on earth.

There are eight gates – seven are open and one is sealed – along the Old City walls that were built in the 16th century by Turkish sultan Suleiman the Magnificent.

It’s always busy at Damascus Gate, the main entrance to the Muslim quarter, and at Jaffa Gate, facing west toward the Mediterranean, where local residents and tourists mix in markets lining stone alleyways.

Lion’s Gate – two pairs of heraldic lions are carved on the archway – is also known as St. Stephen’s Gate. It faces east, toward ancient Jericho. It is often crowded with Muslim worshippers after prayers at al-Aqsa mosque, Islam’s third holiest shrine.

Many Jewish worshippers take another route to Judaism’s nearby Western Wall. They pass through the Dung Gate, the closest entrance to the holy place, and Jewish families on their way to celebrate a 13-year-old son’s Bar Mitzvah can be spotted making their way to the wall.

Security is always tight in a volatile area at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israeli police patrol and closed circuit TV cameras monitor the passageways of the Old City.

Israel views all of Jerusalem, including the walled Old City that it captured in the 1967 Middle East war, as its “eternal and indivisible” capital.

Palestinians want East Jerusalem, where the Old City is located, as the capital of a state they seek to establish in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.

(Writing by Jeffrey Heller; editing by Emelia Sithole-Matarise)