German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier (center) visits the synagogue in Halle
German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier (center) visits the synagogue in Halle REUTERS

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier said Thursday after meeting with Jewish leaders at the site of a deadly anti-Semitic attack that the country had a duty to protect Jews on its soil.

"It must be clear that the state takes responsibility for Jewish life, for the security of Jewish life in Germany," he said, underlining the country's commitment to atoning for the Holocaust. "We must protect Jewish life."

Steinmeier laid flowers outside a synagogue where a heavily armed, suspected far-right extremist gunman tried to gain access as about 80 Jews marked the high holiday of Yom Kippur Wednesday.

When he could not break down the locked door, he shot a female passer-by on the street and later gunned down a customer at a kebab restaurant.

In the wake of the shocking rampage, Jewish leaders demanded to know why the synagogue had not been better protected and criticized what they called a slow response by the police to calls for help.

Steinmeier said Germans could not remain silent in the face of far-right incitement and violence.

"Anyone who expresses even a bit of understanding for right-wing extremism and racial hatred... or politically motivated violence against people who think differently or have different beliefs shares guilt," he said.

"History warns us and the present demands this of us."

Steinmeier said he believed that a "great majority of Germans" believed that the Jewish community had a key place in the country.

"We must show this and not just in the coming days," he said. "We need to stand steadfastly together."

Germany has taken pride in the rebirth of Jewish life since the Nazis' World War II slaughter of six million Jews across Europe.

The community has grown to about 225,000 thanks in large part to an influx from the ex-Soviet Union after the fall of the Berlin Wall.