The US is shocked by dual attacks against religious groups on final weekend of 2019

By: Joseph Lyttleton

Updated on

Reading Time: 4 minutes Click Here for a Quick Summary!

2019 ended with two, apparently unrelated, attacks that rattled religious communities across the United States. 

The first occurred on Saturday, December 29, when a man entered the home of a rabbi in New York and stabbed five people. 

The second attack occurred the following day when a man interrupted a church service in Texas and fatally shot two people. 

The two attacks closed out a year in which authorities around the world have noted a rise in crimes motivated by anti-religious bigotry.  

A machete attack in New York and a shooting in Texas

On Saturday, the seventh night of Hanukkah, Grafton E. Thomas entered the house of Rabbi Chaim Rottenberg as his Orthodox Jewish congregation were celebrating.

The home, in Mosney, New York, is just next door to the Congregation Netzach Yisroel synagogue. Thomas used a machete in an attack that left five injured, including one in critical condition.

Thomas fled the scene by car but his license plate was recorded by a witness and given to police. Thomas was captured less than an hour later as he attempted to enter New York City, 35 miles south of Monsey.

The following day, a shooting occurred in White Settlement, Texas, while worshipers were attending a Sunday morning service at West Freeway Church of Christ. A man identified as Keith Thomas Kinnunen entered the church with a shotgun and killed two people, Anton Tony Wallace and Richard White.

Members of the church’s security force in attendance returned fire. The gunman was fatally shot by Jack Wilson, the church’s head of security. The two victims were also part of the security team.

Motives for the attacks

Thomas, who is purported to have a history of mental illness and a police record, was charged with five counts of attempted murder and one count of burglary. In full, the attempted murder charges are for “obstructing the free exercise of religious beliefs involving an attempt to kill and use of a dangerous weapon.” 

The attack is being investigated as a hate crime.

Based on his journals and internet search history, the FBI believes that Thomas was motivated by anti-Semitism. The journals included references to Adolf Hitler and Nazis, while online he performed multiple searches for the location of “Zionist Temples”. “Zionism” refers to the belief that the Jewish people should have a protected state in Israel.

The authorities have yet to determine an official motive for Kinnunen’s acts. It has been reported that members of the church had, prior to the shooting, provided food to the man. However, after church authorities refused to give Kinnunen money, the man reportedly grew angry. Kinnunen had a history of mental illness and a police record.

Other hate-based attacks

These attacks occurred a little over a year since the Tree of Life synagogue attack in Pittsburgh that left 11 dead and six others wounded. That October 2018 attack, considered one of the nation’s deadliest against Jewish people, was perpetrated by Robert Bowers. Though Bowers was shot multiple times by police officers, he survived to face 44 federal charges, which included hate crime charges. Bowers used an AR-15 in the attack.

On March 15, 2019, a man entered a Muslim mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, and killed 51 worshipers with an assault rifle. The attacker, Brenton Tarrant, is an Australian white supremacist who has been described as an “extremist, right-wing, violent terrorist” by Australia’s prime minister. Tarrant was charged under New Zealand’s Terrorism Suppression Act and was charged with 51 counts of murder and 40 counts of attempted murder.

As a result of the shooting, New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, successfully petitioned for a federal ban on automatic and semiautomatic weapons, as well as a gun buyback program.

The global rise of hate

The US Department of Justice compiles an annual list of federal hate crimes. In 2019, they highlighted nine separate attacks or plotted attacks as being religious-based. While these don’t include the two most recent attacks in New York and Texas, they do include a plot by a self-identified white supremacist to blow up a Jewish temple in Pueblo, Colorado.

In November 2019, the FBI released a report that indicated that 2018 marked a 16-year high in the number of hate crimes. That year, a total of 4,571 crimes were reported that were based on the “offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity.” An overall increase in the number of physical assaults was also reported.

Police in the United Kingdom have said they’ve seen hate crimes double in number since 2013. The motivations for these crimes have included religion, sexual orientation, and race.

 A separate report in England found that millions of Christians have been “killed, kidnapped, imprisoned and discriminated against” across large swaths of Asia and Africa.  In China, millions of Muslims have been detained in internment camps by the country’s government, with some facing torture and forced political indoctrination.