Year-end violence highlights danger to worshippers in the US

Religious groups see increasing need to secure places of worship as attacks rise

FILE - In this Nov. 10, 2017, file photo, family and friends gather around a makeshift memorial for the victims of the First Baptist Church shooting at Sutherland Springs Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. The machete attack on a rabbi's home in Monsey, New York, during Hanukkah and the shooting of worshippers at a Texas church are refocusing attention on how vulnerable worshippers are during religious services. FBI hate crime statistics show there is reason for concern. (AP Photo/Eric Gay, File)

When a machete-wielding attacker walked into a rabbi's home in Monsey, New York, on December 28 and a gunman opened fire in a Texas church 14 hours later, two more faith communities joined a long list of those that have come under attack in the US.

The frequency of attacks has faith leaders across denominations and law enforcement grappling with how to protect people when they are at their most vulnerable.

The FBI's hate-crime statistics show that incidents in churches, synagogues, temples and mosques increased by 34.8 per cent between 2014 and 2018, the last year for which figures are available.

“For a person bent on hate crime against a particular religion or race, they go to a place where you know a lot of people in that group will be congregating and vulnerable,” said James Fox, a criminologist at Boston’s Northeastern University.

Most congregations do not have security, Mr Fox said.

Three of the deadliest attacks on congregation members have occurred since June 2015, when a gunman killed nine people at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, according to a database of such events.

The database, compiled by AP, USA Today and Northeastern University, includes attacks where four or more victims are killed.

But it does not include the most recent attacks, which have refocused attention on the security at religious places.

The FBI's data lists crimes including a Colorado plot to blow up a synagogue, an Oregon man sentenced to prison for attacking a Catholic Church and two guilty pleas in the bombing of an Islamic centre in Minnesota, where Muslims were praying.

Recent attacks include the stabbing of an Orthodox Jewish man as he approached his synagogue in Monsey in November, and the torching of a Buddhist temple in Las Vegas, where at least one monk was shot at while fleeing the fire.

The FBI invited faith leaders to its Washington headquarters in June to discuss how they could protect themselves and their congregants.

Mark Whitlock Jr, pastor of Reid Temple AME Church in Glenn Dale, Maryland, said his staff and volunteers met five times in the past month to discuss safety.

“Our first responsibility is to make sure our congregants have faith in God and second that they are safe," Mr Whitlock said.

“We must not create an environment of fear but we also must not fail to recognise things do happen and evil is present.”

His church has a paid security staff of about 20 officers who are uniformed and armed.

There are also volunteers from former and current federal agents, law enforcement officers and military, Mr Whitlock said.

Recent anti-Semitic attacks have added to security concerns since the 2018 massacre at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, where 11 people were killed.

“The greatest adversary we truly face is not an external threat, it’s a sense of denial,” said Michael Masters, national director of the Secure Community Network.

The network was formed by leading Jewish organisations in 2004 to co-ordinate a response to threats.

“The conversation prior to Pittsburgh was whether safety and security was necessary,” Mr Masters said.

“Now it’s a question of how do we effectuate that. There’s now a reality that these events can happen anywhere.”

Sunday's attack in White Settlement, Texas, in which the gunman was shot dead by a highly trained leader of the church's security team, came barely two years after more than two dozen people were killed at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas.

That remains the deadliest shooting at a house of worship in the US in modern times.

The two attacks increased worries among churchgoers in neighbouring Oklahoma, said the Derrek Belase, a former police officer turned pastor who co-ordinates security training for the more than 480 United Methodist churches in the state.

“Texas is close to home for us,” Mr Belase said. “People see it on the news and think, ‘That could be us'.”

Under Oklahoma law, houses of worship are among the places where adults are allowed to carry firearms, concealed or openly.

Churches may ask worshippers not to bring guns with them, but Mr Belase says it is not a common request.

His main recommendations are to work in tandem with local law enforcement, be wary of commercial security consultants, and be sure members of any church security team are thoroughly trained.

The security team leader in White Settlement “wasn’t just a guy with a gun", Mr Belase said. “He was trained to do that.”

Pardeep Singh Kaleka, executive director of the Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee, said his Sikh temple has armed guards and an evacuation plan after a 2012 attack in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, killed six worshippers, including his father.

Mr Kaleka said the conference members regularly talked about how to prevent the next tragedy.

“All faiths want to remain open – Buddhists, Sikhs, Muslims, Jews, Christians – but you also have to be vigilant and institute safety protocols,” he said.

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