U.S. churches, mosques boost security amid alarm over mass shootings, extremism

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- In Alabama, a Presbyterian church wanted to be able to hire its own police for protection. Mosque leaders around the country are meeting with law enforcement officials as an anti-Muslim furor fuels arson attacks and vandalism.

See Full Article

And the Federal Emergency Management Agency has been holding specialized training for congregations for "all hazards, including active shooter incidents."

Religious congregations across the United States are concentrating on safety like never before following a season of violence, from the slaughter unleashed in June by a white shooter at a historically black church in Charleston, South Carolina, to the killings this month in San Bernardino, California.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations said 2015 is shaping up as the worst year ever for U.S. mosques, amid the backlash to the Islamic-extremist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, and the intensifying anti-Muslim rhetoric from Donald Trump and others seeking the Republican presidential nomination. Preliminary 2015 data collected by the civil rights organization found 71 reported cases of vandalism, harassment and threats, with 29 of those incidents occurring since the Nov. 13 assaults in France.

The Anti-Defamation League, which works to secure Jewish sites, has been organizing safety training around the country with other faith groups, including an Austin, Texas, event with local police and the African Methodist Episcopal Churches of Greater Austin that drew participants from 35 churches and three mosques. The Charleston church attacked in June, Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, is part of the national African Methodist Episcopal denomination.

Christian churches have been refining their security plans ahead of receiving some of their largest crowds of the year for Christmas. On a FEMA webinar last Wednesday on protecting houses of worship, the chief security executive at The Potter's House, the Rev. T.D. Jakes' megachurch in Dallas, gave tips about behaviour that should raise concern, such as a congregant arriving in a long coat in hot weather. If needed, church greeters could give a hug and feel for weapons, said the executive, Sean Smith.

"I call it the Holy Ghost pat-down," Smith said.

Congregations and other religious sites have long been targets of violence and vandalism, especially African-American churches going back at least to the civil rights movement. In 2007, a young man on a shooting spree killed two people at an evangelical ministry and two more at New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado. In 2012, a white supremacist killed six people at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. And last year, a white supremacist killed three people at a Jewish Community Center and retirement home in suburban Kansas City.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Jewish groups led an effort that persuaded Congress to provide grants through the Department of Homeland Security to improve protection of congregations. Even so, a 2013 poll by the Barna Group for Brotherhood Mutual Insurance found nearly 60 per cent of Protestant churches nationwide did not have a formal security plan for worship services.

Now anxieties over security are reaching a new level with national attention focused on mass shootings and terror threats, renewing debate about how far congregations should go to protect themselves given the religious imperative to be open to newcomers.

In Charlotte, North Carolina, St. Matthew Roman Catholic Church, alerted parishioners this week to beefed-up security, such as uniformed and plain-clothes police officers at services, and a ban on backpacks, baby strollers and diaper bags in worship areas.

"People feel that is almost like a weight lifted, in light of what is happening in the world today," said Antoinette Usher, the facilities and operations director at St. Matthew, which has held three security training sessions for staff, including active-shooter training. "They were feeling a little concerned about being a house of worship. You're facing forward. Someone could come in from behind."

Rod Pires, who runs a church security ministry in the Atlanta area, said he is getting more and more requests for help, including several calls daily from churches asking whether they should arm their members or develop a security plan. Several states allow concealed weapons in churches, including Arkansas, Illinois and North Dakota.

A bill the Alabama Legislature passed in August would have let Briarwood Presbyterian Church in metro Birmingham hire at least one police officer and perhaps more, giving them the same authority as city or county enforcement on properties that include the church and a large private school. Gov. Robert Bentley refused to sign the legislation, which died on his desk as some lawmakers and administration officials worried the bill could open the door to private police forces statewide.

Most recently, concern has been focused on mosques. Last Monday, the White House convened meetings of Muslim and Sikh leaders to discuss the uptick in hate crimes against their houses of worship and individual members of their faiths. Sikhs, who wear turbans, are often mistaken for Muslims.

The alarming cases of harassment include a November anti-Muslim rally with some armed demonstrators outside of an Irving, Texas, mosque, and an arson attack at the Islamic Society of Coachella Valley in California, about 75 miles (120 kilometres) from San Bernardino. Last weekend, two mosques in the Los Angeles suburb of Hawthorne were vandalized with paint and a fake grenade was left. And the Anti-Defamation League, which also tracks hate crimes, said three California houses run by the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic movement received hand-written letters saying Jews should get out of "our white country" and "take the Muslims with you."

At ADAMS in Sterling, Virginia, one of the largest Muslim congregations in the U.S., the security guards resigned, saying they felt they could no longer protect the mosque amid the anti-Muslim uproar, ADAMS board chairman Rizwan Jaka said. The guards have been replaced with a more experienced team and the centre's leaders are trying to reassure Muslims worried about the risks of attending Friday prayers.

"Mosques are targets, so it's a natural fear they might have," Jaka said. "We're probably back to normal from a congregational attendance perspective since we got the upgraded security."

On the FEMA webinar, officials emphasized the need for heightened security for all houses of worship. Katherine Schweit, chief of the active-shooter section in the FBI's Office of Partner Engagement, explained how congregants could create confusion to distract shooters.

"You can fight by everyone throwing a Bible at them," Schweit said, "and I mean that in a very respectful way because I am a Bible-fearing person."



Advertisements

Latest Canada & World News

  • Fact check: Trump overstates crowd size at inaugural

    World News CTV News
    WASHINGTON -- President Donald Trump's speech Saturday at the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency turned into the latest battle in, as he put it, his "running war with the media." He had two central complaints: that the media misrepresented the size of the crowd at his inauguration and that it was incorrectly reported a bust of Martin Luther King Jr. Source
  • Trump, Trudeau talk economy and exports in first conversation since inauguration

    Canada News Toronto Sun
    OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has congratulated U.S. President Trump on his inauguration. The Prime Minister’s Office says the two men spoke by phone Saturday, but it was not immediately clear how long the conversation lasted. Source
  • A-list celebs join anti-Trump women’s marches [Photos] [Video]

    World News Toronto Sun
    WASHINGTON — If you wondered where many of Hollywood’s A-list celebrities had gone during President Donald Trump’s inauguration, you didn’t have to wonder any longer on Saturday, when scores of them showed up at women’s marches in Washington and other cities to send the new president a pointed message that he was in for a fight — and that, as so many signs said, women’s rights are human rights. Source
  • The 'pussyhats' grab back: Massive Women's March on Washington overwhelms streets

    World News CBC News
    "Anyone need a hat?" "I've got extra Pussyhats! Who wants Pussyhats?" And, just to be sure — "Ladies, come take a hat!" In the raging political cauldron that is Washington, D.C., no sartorial choice mattered more these past two days than your headwear. Source
  • 'Fight like a girl': The best signs and slogans from Women's Marches worldwide

    World News CBC News
    Millions of women and their allies marched all over the world on Saturday, using creative signs, slogans and costumes to protest the inauguration of U.S. President Donald Trump, a man who has repeatedly come under fire for his treatment of and comments about women. Source
  • Trump praises CIA, rips media coverage of inauguration

    World News Toronto Sun
    WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump opened his first full day as president Saturday at a national prayer service, the final piece of transition business for the nation’s new chief executive before a promised full-on shift into governing. Source
  • Trump's inaugural cake a knock-off of Obama's, celebrity baker says

    World News CTV News
    U.S. President Donald Trump’s inaugural cake appears to have taken more than a slice of inspiration from the cake former President Barack Obama cut into after his re-election four years ago. Celebrity baker Duff Goldman, whose Baltimore cake emporium is the subject of the popular reality television show “Ace of Cakes,” spotted hints of his handiwork and called attention to the alleged pastry plagiarism with a side-by-side photo Friday evening. Source
  • Gambia's defeated president finally cedes power, to enter exile weeks after election loss

    World News CBC News
    Gambia's defeated leader Yahya Jammeh and his family headed into political exile Saturday night, ending a 22-year reign of fear and a post-election political standoff that threatened to provoke a regional military intervention when he clung to power. Source
  • Search intensifies for 23 in avalanche-struck hotel

    World News Toronto Sun
    FARINDOLA, Italy — Rescuers listened for signs Saturday of any more survivors, three days after an avalanche slammed into a resort hotel in Italy’s central Apennines mountains. Using saws, shovels and just gloved hands, they advanced slowly through the wreckage in hopes of locating some 23 guests and hotel workers still missing. Source
  • Canadians heading to women's march turned away at U.S. border

    Canada News Toronto Sun
    The plan was simple. Montrealer Sasha Dyck and some friends would drive to Washington to join the Women's March. But when the six Canadians and two French nationals reached the border at Saint-Bernard-de-Lacolle, in Quebec, they ran into trouble. Source