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Places of Worship under Attack

Places of Worship under Attack
Protecting places of worship from attacks requires a very unique approach that combines specialized security teams, proactive security measures...
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The latest shooting event targeting a church, that took place on February 11, 2024 in Houston, brings up again for discussion the importance of protection in places of worship. In recent years, these locations have become targets of violence, sparking widespread concern, and necessitating increased safety measures. Throughout history, places of worship have been targeted during times of social unrest, political upheaval, and religious persecution. Recently, from churches and mosques to synagogues and temples, no religious community seems immune to the threat of attack. This alarming trend, which appears to have been increasing over the last two decades, not only undermines the sanctity of these sacred spaces but also poses a huge risk to the safety and well-being of worshippers.

Trying to study the numbers involved in these attacks, we run into a problem with the nonexistence of a singular dedicated database or centralized source that specifically tracks attacks on places of worship in the United States. However, we can still gather important information from various organizations, such as religious advocacy groups, civil rights organizations, and some governmental bodies (Anti-Defamation League (ADL), the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), Family Research Council (FRC), and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)), that maintain records or reports on such incidents. One research study we found informative was done by the Dolan Consulting Group, and during the 17 years of data gathered, they found that there were 155 deaths and 742 injuries recorded in attacks targeting places of worship in America. Another interesting find was that 29 states experienced acts of hostility against churches in the first quarter or 2023 alone.

For those who are interested to do further research on the issue, there are two things to consider when trying to obtain the most accurate and up-to-date information on the number of attacks on places of worship in the past few years. You will need to consult multiple sources, including law enforcement agencies, news outlets, and research reports, and you need to keep in mind that the number of reported attacks may not capture the full extent of the issue as some incidents quite often go unreported or unrecognized.

Why are places of worship prone to attacks?

Places of worship become targets for several reasons which make them more prone to attacks:

  • Their symbolic significance – Places of worship hold profound symbolic significance for religious communities. Attacking these sacred spaces can instill fear, provoke outrage, and send a message of hostility to specifically targeted religious groups.
  • Their openness and accessibility – Many places of worship strive to maintain an atmosphere of openness and inclusivity, welcoming worshippers, and visitors from diverse backgrounds. This can make them more vulnerable to attacks as security measures may be less stringent compared to other public or private facilities.
  • The religious tensions and extremism – Hate-motivated attacks may target specific religious communities based on their perceived beliefs, ethnicity, or cultural identity. Extremist groups may view attacks on religious institutions as a means to advance their ideological agendas.
  • They are perceived as soft targets – Compared to well protected government buildings or corporate institutions, places of worship are often perceived as softer targets because they either have no security measures at all or they have less stringent security measures.
  • Their limited budget for security resources – Many religious institutions operate on limited budgets (if they have any budget at all) and rely heavily on volunteer efforts to maintain their security operations.
  • The latest global trends – Global trends, such as wars or the rise of religious extremism, xenophobia, and terrorism, contribute to an increased risk of violence targeting religious institutions worldwide.

Because the attacks against places of worship can take various forms including shooting, arson, bombings, acts of vandalism, etc., and the fact that the motives behind these attacks are often driven by religious intolerance, extremism, or even personal grievances, protecting these places has a lot of challenges.

As we already mentioned, because these establishments are open and welcoming, they are more susceptible to exploitation by individuals with malicious intent. And many religious institutions operate on limited budgets which makes it difficult to invest in proper security measures. Other things to consider are the fact that places of worship can have different architectural styles, sizes, and layouts, from small community churches to large cathedrals, mosques, synagogues, and temples. To be able to secure diverse spaces with such varying needs and vulnerabilities requires specialized security solutions and the proper number of security personnel.

An enormous challenge is also the fact that many religious groups prioritize principles of trust, faith, and openness, rather than safety and security. Implementing visible security measures like armed guards or metal detectors may conflict with their personal values. You may face resistance or pushback from worshippers who perceive security measures as unnecessary, intrusive, or contrary to their beliefs.

The need for specialized security solutions to protect places of worship:

Blue Raven Inc. has more than a decade of experience in providing security services to places of worship in the Washington D.C., Virginia, and Maryland area. Our team of armed and unarmed security officers has been protecting religious leaders and congregations with the utmost respect and cultural sensitivity. We have found that, despite the challenges, there are several strategies that religious communities and security professionals can apply to enhance the safety of places of worship:

  • Risk, Threat, and Vulnerability Assessment: Conducting a thorough risk, threat, and vulnerability assessment is the first step in developing an effective security plan for places of worship. This involves identifying potential threats, risks, vulnerabilities, and critical areas within the facility that require protective measures. It’s a well-known fact-preparation and mitigating risks will save lives. According to Michael Masters, executive director of Secure Community Network, who during the meeting of faith leaders with the FBI’s Office of Partner Engagement, revealed that just a few weeks before the attack at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, a security review had revealed that the emergency exits were blocked, so consequently, those exits were cleared before the attack, and it helped save people’s lives. And also, the synagogue’s rabbi, who didn’t normally carry a cell phone on the Sabbath, agreed to do so after a security training class and it was this rabbi who made the call to 911 when the shooting started.
  • Congregation’s Involvement and Training: When considering protective measures, it is essential to have multiple layers of defense. While private security officers can be the frontline deterrent, they cannot be everywhere at once, not to mention the fact that the numbers of hired security personnel is never equal to the potential security needs. The church itself and the congregation can play a significant role in protecting their own places of worship. Preparing and training congregation members can be very valuable in preventing or reacting effectively during an attack. According to an article written by Royce Stephens (Police Practice – Helping Churches Feel Safe), ‘’The church itself should also be prepared in case of an attack. Annually, pastors can take a portion of an evening service to run through practical scenarios, so everyone clearly understands their responsibilities and expectations.”

By implementing security protocols, receiving proper training, and conducting regular drills, worshippers can become familiar with emergency procedures and develop the necessary skills to respond calmly and efficiently in crisis situations. Training can include recognizing suspicious behavior, understanding evacuation routes, administering first aid, and implementing communication strategies. And as we all know, in the event of an emergency, every second counts, and congregation members who are trained and prepared can respond faster, expedite response efforts, and minimize harm. Also, by equipping them with the knowledge and skills to respond effectively to threats, you instill a sense of confidence and self-reliance within the community.

Additionally, updating members on the latest events that may affect their safety as well as educating them about potential threats and promoting a culture of vigilance, fosters a proactive approach to security and empowers the community to identify and address risks before they escalate. It is also very important to communicate with the congregation members how to work alongside the security teams, law enforcement and how to report anything suspicious. Clear communication protocols have to be established to ensure that everyone knows their role and can work together efficiently if required.

Congregation members should become active participants in maintaining a safe environment within their place of worship. The truth is no one knows the day-to-day rhythms of the congregation better than its own members. By having good situational awareness, they can identify anything out of the ordinary. They are uniquely positioned to detect unusual behavior or suspicious activities that may go unnoticed by security personnel. The congregation members can create a network of eyes and ears throughout their place of worship, therefore enhancing the overall security coverage. Each member becomes an additional line of defense, contributing to their own security.  As with every other organization or small community, safety must start from within.

  • Access Control and use of Technology: Implementing access control measures, such as installing security cameras, reinforced doors, and guards, can help regulate entry into the premises and deter unauthorized individuals. By utilizing different technology solutions, such as alarm systems, panic buttons, and real-time monitoring tools, you can enhance physical security measures and enable rapid response to threats.
  • Trained and Specialized Security Officers: Providing specially trained security officers that can recognize the diverse cultural and religious practices of worshippers, and will respect their traditions and values, will have a profound effect on those attending services. These officers should also be trained in emergency response protocols, first aid, how to recognize suspicious behavior, and de-escalation techniques, among others.
  • Threat Intelligence: Threat intelligence helps in identifying and understanding the motives, tactics, and capabilities of potential threat actors targeting your place of worship. This includes extremist groups, hate organizations, lone actors, or individuals with grievances against specific religious communities. By analyzing threat intelligence sources such as open-source intelligence (OSINT), law enforcement reports, and intelligence-sharing networks, security teams can gain a better understanding of the specific threats facing their religious institution.
  • Creating Specific Security Measures: Based on the intelligence insights, and the risk, threat, and vulnerability assessments, security measures should be designed to address and correct specific needs and weaknesses facing places of worship.
  • Crisis Management Planning and Training: Developing a crisis management plan, including evacuation procedures, communication protocols, and coordination with emergency services, can be essential in minimizing harm and facilitating recovery in the event of an attack.

Protecting places of worship from attacks requires a very unique approach that combines specialized security teams, proactive security measures, worshippers’ engagement, commitment to safeguarding religious freedom and cultural sensitivity. At Blue Raven Inc. we know how to keep the most sacred places safe and secure for your congregation.

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