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Sorrow and shock in Germany after Jehovah’s Witness hall shooting

Berlin – Grief, solidarity and shock are among the sentiments being expressed in Germany as the country comes to terms with a mass shooting that left seven people dead at a Jehovah’s Witness prayer house in Hamburg.

Several other people remain in critical condition after a gunman fired a semiautomatic pistol into a worship service at about 9 p.m. local time on Thursday.

Authorities identified the perpetrator as Philipp F, a 35-year-old former member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses community who reportedly left the group on bad terms about 18 months ago. After the shootings, the gunman died when he turned the gun on himself.

Hamburg Mayor Peter Tschentscher described the news as “crushing”, while German Chancellor Olaf Scholz at the scene of the attack said he was “speechless” by the incident.

Outside of Hamburg, people across Germany were shocked and saddened by the news.

Osman Oers is one of the founders and imam of House of One, a faith center currently under construction in the German capital of Berlin that will become a shared religious space for Jewish, Muslim and Christian faith groups.

“All of us at House of One mourn all the deaths in the Jehovah’s Witnesses community in Hamburg,” Oers told Al Jazeera. “We – Jews, Christians and Muslims in the House of One – sympathize with them and include them in our prayers. I wish the relatives and everyone who witnessed this terrible event a lot of strength and patience to overcome this horror.”

Daniel Egbe, a chemistry professor, said the mass shooting was “a shocking event for Germany”.

“My initial assumption was that this was a racially motivated attack, which unfortunately Germany has experienced many times before, so I was deeply shocked to learn that it was within a religious community,” said Egbe, who is also the founder of the migrant-focused organization African Network for Solar Energy in Halle, Middle East Germany.

Flowers and candles are pictured at the scene where several people died in a church shooting in Hamburg, northern Germany (File: Axel Heimken/AFP)

A growing call for better measures for gun control

According to media reports, authorities had cleared Philipp F last month after being tipped off anonymously that he was engaging in disturbing behavior and harboring bad feelings towards the community. After police made an unannounced check of his home on February 7, they found no signs of mental illness and allowed him to keep his gun after being satisfied it was properly put away.

In Germany, it is legal for people 18 years or older with no criminal record to be licensed to own a gun if they meet certain legal requirements. Official figures show that there are more than 940,000 registered private gun owners in Germany, many of whom are sport shooters or hunters.

The latest shooting has increased pressure on the government to enforce stricter background checks and tighten gun control, an issue already on the agenda following a string of gun incidents in recent years.

In December, illegal firearms were found during raids on members of a far-right group suspected of trying to overthrow the German government.

Two years earlier, in February 2020, a far-right extremist killed 10 non-white Germans and injured five others in the central city of Hanau in what is believed to be one of the country’s worst racially motivated attacks in recent years.

The events in Hanau followed the deaths of two people in a synagogue in Halle who were shot by a far-right extremist on the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur. That same year, politician Walter Luebcke was shot at close range outside his home in central Germany by a man with far-right ties who has since been imprisoned for life.

More needs to be done

In the wake of this latest case of gun violence, some believe more needs to be done to tackle gun ownership in Germany.

Nataly Jung-Hwa Han, president of Korea Verband, a Korean-German intercultural organization based in Berlin, told Al Jazeera that Thursday’s tragedy was not something you would expect in the country.

“The news surprised me, because we are used to hearing this kind of shooting in the US, not in Germany,” she said. “But the incident shows that there is still a problem of gun misuse in the country and I don’t understand why more is not being done to prevent the guns from falling into the wrong hands.

“The government must work harder to control gun ownership in the country and prevent innocent lives from being lost to gun violence,” she added.

For Egbe, the chemistry professor, there should be more restrictions to control gun owners.

“The psychological stability of a potential gun owner must be tested as we don’t want to get into the situation we see happening so often in America,” he said.

For Oers, the imam in Berlin, the incident has also highlighted the risks for religious communities.

“The frenzy in Hamburg has shocked us all very much. The attack once again illustrates that more attention must be paid to the protection and security of religious communities in Europe. Awareness of this also needs to be raised,” he said.