RELIGIOUS leaders in Austria and across Europe have deplored the shootings that left at least five dead and 22 injured in central Vienna on Monday night.
“The faith of the gospel is stronger than terror — stronger than fear and uncertainty,” the Ecumenical Council of Churches in Austria said in a statement.
“At this difficult time of pandemic, Austria is commemorating its regaining of freedom and peace 75 years ago — not with grandiose words and pompous celebrations, but with the determination not to let anyone endanger these achievements. . . This country and its people will not allow themselves to be discouraged as they continue on the path of justice, respect, and charity.”
The Council, which comprises 16 denominations,said that churches were grateful for the “resolute, courageous, and prudent” response of security services to the attacks at six locations close to the central synagogue in Vienna.
Archbishop Franz Lackner of Salzburg, president of the Roman Catholic Bishops’ Conference, praised national reactions to the atrocity, and called on religious believers to oppose terrorism “inwardly with all the strength of spirit and faith”.
“We will not bow to violence or flee into the hustle and bustle of everyday life; peace, a basic word of faith recognised by all religions, is a precious good to be defended,” the Archbishop said at an ecumenical service on Tuesday evening in Salzburg Cathedral, during three days of national mourning.
“This attack shows what Austria always believed to be far away is actually very close. What misguided, inhuman ideology was at work there, to shoot randomly at peacefully assembled people?”
Accompanied by the tolling of church bells, a minute’s silence was held for those caught up in the attack, which was condemned by the Austrian Chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, as an assault on the country’s “way of life and democracy”.
The Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, Bishop Michael Chalupka, vowed in a Facebook message that terrorism would not “break the cohesion” of city life.
The Archbishop of Vienna, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, assured the congregation at a memorial service in St Stephen’s Cathedral, Vienna, attended by state and government representatives, as well as Muslim, Jewish, and Orthodox and other church leaders, that religious co-operation would survive the attack.
“Peace is never a finished product, but a network of many individual efforts and appropriate attitudes which shun the stirring of hatred and prejudice. A crisis also shows how well our institutions work,” the Cardinal said. There were also ecumenical commemorations in Linz, Innsbruck, Klagenfurt, and other cities.
“Religious peace in Austria has grown from the terrible experiences of religious wars and murderous persecution of the Jews. This unity must never be jeopardised by individual, misguided acts of hatred.”
Police confirmed that they had shot dead a 20-year-old gunman armed with a shortened Kalashnikov assault rifle and machete, near a church, St Rupert’s, during the outrage, and were hunting other suspects after making arrests during house raids across Austria.
The Archbishop of Canterbury responded to news of the attacks, writing on Twitter on Tuesday: “Shocked and deeply concerned by the terrible attack in Vienna. As we pray for all those affected, in God’s name we stand in solidarity against terror and hatred.”
The Bishop in Europe, Dr Robert Innes, wrote on Twitter on Tuesday morning: “As Europe awakes to confirmed news of a terrorist attack in Vienna @dioceseineurope we pray for the victims & their loved ones. We pray for our Church @CCVienna. May God grant peace & strength to the people of Austria at this time.”
A prayer was issued from the Church of England Twitter account on Tuesday morning.
In a televised address on Tuesday, President Alexander Van der Bellen urged Austrians to uphold “freedom, tolerance, and respect”, as well as their hard-won “life in a liberal democracy which terrorists apparently hate so deeply”.
Austria’s Islamic Faith Community said that it was “deeply affected and stunned” by the outrage.
Vienna’s Community Rabbi, Schlomo Hofmeister, told the national broadcasting service Österreichischer Rundfunk that he had witnessed at least 100 rounds fired into bars and restaurants near the synagogue compound. The attack, he said, revived memories of a Palestinian attack on the Stadttempel synagogue, which killed two and wounded 30, in 1981.
All Jewish synogogues, schools, shops, and kosher restaurants remained closed in Austria in response to the attack, which occurred as new restrictions on religious services were introduced in line with a partial Covid-19 lockdown, and as churches across France remained under police guard after Islamist attacks in Paris, Nice, and Lyon.
In a telegram, the Pope expressed “great dismay” at violence that had “brought death and pain to innocent people”. The interim general secretary of the World Council of Churches (WCC), the Revd Dr Ioan Sauca, said that the WCC categorically condemned “all attempts to justify violence” with religion, and counted on political and religious leaders to adopt “a renewed attitude of co-operation”.
Dr Sauca, a Romanian theologian, said that the attack in Vienna had occurred as 54 Ethiopian Orthodox Christians were massacred in a village attack in Oromia, and as 19 died in an Islamist attack on Monday at Afghanistan’s largest university, in Kabul.
Fr Paul Zulehner, professor emeritus for pastoral theology at the University of Vienna, warned in a statement that the attack would “massively harm” attempts to overcome Islam’s “image as a violent religion”.
He went on to say, however, that Islamist terrorism was also fuelled by a sense of the “deep humiliation of the Arab-Muslim world”, which had been intensified by recent republication of cartoons and caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad, which would “burden the climate of interreligious dialogue and democratic discourse”.
Muslim communities in Austria said that they would hold memorial services for the attack victims as part of today’s Friday prayers.
Read more on this story in Paul Vallely’s column