Tragedy as gunman opens fire in historic black Charleston church

by Gregory Tomlin, |
A suspect which police are searching for in connection with the shooting of several people at a church in Charleston, S.C., is seen in a still image from CCTV footage released by the Charleston Police Department June 18, 2015. The gunman was still at large after killing nine people during a prayer service at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, the city's police chief said on Thursday. The FBI is investigating the incident as a hate crime. | REUTERS/Charleston Police Department/Handout via Reuters

CHARLESTON, S.C. (Christian Examiner) – A gunman opened fire in an historic Charleston, S.C., church last night, killing the church's pastor and eight others gathered for a prayer meeting.

KHOU in Houston is reporting the suspect has been identified by police as 21-year-old Dylann Storm Roof.

Police in Charleston said six women and three men were among the dead at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. They also described the gunmen as white and said FBI agents are investigating the shooting as a hate crime.

According to witnesses, a white man entered the church and asked to speak with the pastor. The two talked for some time. Then, witnesses said, he opened fire after claiming, "I have to do this. You rape our women and have taken over our country."

Police Chief Greg Mullen said surveillance video from the church showed the shooter entering the church in a light gray shirt with a distinctive, but blurry yellow logo on the left breast. He was also wearing black pants and apparently driving a dark vehicle.

This senseless tragedy at a place of worship, where we come together to laugh, love and rejoice in God's name, is absolutely despicable and can never be understood.

"This is a very dangerous individual," Mullen said in an early morning press conference. "We will put all effort, we will put all resources and we will put all of our energy into finding this individual who committed this crime tonight."

Charleston Mayor Joseph Riley, who described the shooter as "deranged," told reporters the city was going to put its arms "around that church and that church family."

"Of all cities, in Charleston, to have a horrible hateful person go into the church and kill people there to pray and worship with each other is something that is beyond any comprehension and is not explained," Riley said.

Clementa Pinckney, 41, the church's pastor apparently killed first by the gunman, was also a Democrat South Carolina state senator. He was elected as at age 23, making him one of the state's youngest elected leaders.

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley said in a statement she and her family are praying for the victims and families touched by "the senseless tragedy at Emanuel AME Church."

"While we do not yet know all of the details, we do know that we'll never understand what motivates anyone to enter one of our places of worship and take the life of another."

U.S. Senator Tim Scott [R-S.C.] said in a statement:

"My heart is breaking for Charleston and South Carolina tonight. This senseless tragedy at a place of worship, where we come together to laugh, love and rejoice in God's name, is absolutely despicable and can never be understood. Tonight we stand together in prayer for Pastor Pinckney and his congregation at Emanuel AME, and for the families who are enduring unimaginable pain at the loss of their loved ones. We will come together as a city and as a state to lift up those who need us most right now. I hope for their sake, and for the people of Charleston, that the perpetrators of this terrible crime are swiftly brought to justice."

Cornell Brooks, president and CEO of the NAACP, also issued a statement calling the event a "mass hate crime."

"The senselessly slain parishioners were in a church for Wednesday night Bible study. There is no greater coward than a criminal who enters a house of God and slaughters innocent people engaged in the study of Scripture. Today, I mourn as an AME minister, as a student and teacher of Scripture, as well as a member of the NAACP," Brooks said.

Emanuel AME, which dates to 1816, is one of the oldest historically-black churches in the country. It split from Charleston's Methodist Church over the issue of slavery in the early days of the abolitionist movement. Since, it has been referred to traditionally as "Mother Emanuel."

The church's website described Pinckney as having been called by God to preach at the age of 13. He began to pastor his first church at the age of 18. Pinckney was also a Woodrow Wilson Summer Research Fellow at Princeton University and a graduate of Luther Theological Southern Seminary.

A statement on the church's website, credited to Sister Jean German Ortiz, reads, "Jesus died a passionate death for us, so our love for him should be as passionate."