It is a sad fact that a growing number of faith communities have come under attack in the US, and around the world, in recent years. The news has been full of high-profile cases. The 2019 Sri Lanka Easter bombings which targeted a number of churches, the attacks at two mosques in New Zealand in 2019 and the 2018 attack on a synagogue in Pennsylvania are some of the most shocking examples. But smaller scale hate crimes and other security threats are happening on an increasingly regular basis.
There are a number of unique vulnerabilities that churches, synagogues, mosques and other religious institutions share which make them a target for terrorists. Their very symbolism attracts hate crimes, and in rare cases active shooters. But there are a number of other factors which increase their vulnerability to attack:
- A perceived lack of security
- Use of volunteers
- Front doors remaining unlocked to welcome all
- Buildings left empty for days at a time
- Large crowds gathering, particularly during religious holidays and holy days
- Meeting times which are well-publicised and available to all
- Vulnerable congregations with children and the elderly
- Some also function as tourist attractions, welcoming a wide variety of visitors.
However, terrorism and hate crime aren’t the only potential security threats which religious institutions may face. Vandalism, theft and assault also make the list.
What is being done about it in the US?
FBI hate crime statistics show that incidents in churches, synagogues, temples and mosques in the US increased 34.8% between 2014 and 2018, the last year for which FBI data is available. The data is definitive enough that key organisations are taking notice.
The Faith-Based Information Sharing and Analysis Organization (FB-ISAO) provides threat assessments and risk-mitigation strategies to communities of all faiths and denominations. They have a range of resources and services available to support faith-based organisations address their security concerns.
In June 2019, the FBI invited faith leaders to a roundtable discussion about how to protect themselves and their congregants from bias-based attacks.
This focus highlights that there is a very real security challenge. All religious institutions, regardless of denomination, must take steps to minimise the risk of terrorism, crime and workplace violence.
Improving security in religious institutions
To ensure the safety of their congregations, religious institutions need to have an integrated security plan including three main elements: prevention, preparation and response.
One of the first steps is to understand the threat and identify vulnerable situations.
Strengthening community relationships can play an important part in building up a picture locally. Engagement should take place within a wider social engagement context. Outreach groups such as interfaith councils can help with this, as can interacting with local law enforcement and first responders.
It is important to increase awareness of suspicious activity indicators amongst all those who play a role within the institution. Consider training with religious groups and leaders and first responders to promote a common understanding of the indicators of radicalisation and mobilisation of violence. Those who are most frequently greeting the congregation, for example, could be trained to look out for suspicious activity and encouraged to interact with anyone they don’t recognise.
Ask your congregation and the wider community to be the eyes and ears of security. The more people watching out for any warning and suspicious activity, the better.
The welcoming and open nature of such institutions is often at odds with the levels of security required to meet high threat levels. One of the main challenges is to make sure any steps taken security-wise do not alienate potential newcomers or create a culture of fear and suspicion.
Reducing the risk of crimes of opportunity can be achieved by simply locking the doors at night, but it’s important to weigh this up against the need to be open to all. Another option is to remove and secure places where money and valuables are stored.
The integration of design and use of technology can decrease the risk of an incident escalating. Collaborate with security and design professionals to assess your options.
Structural improvements to security may be limited by your location. Many older buildings don’t comply with modern security standards and significant improvement (such as blast protection) may not be an option.
Limited budgets faced by many also pose a particularly tough security challenge. However, there are some simple steps which should be accessible to all. Security cameras, for instance, can act as a deterrent against theft or help highlight any suspicious activity.
Panic buttons, like our Little Green Button, can also provide a cost-effective solution to help quickly raise an alarm or call for help when a difficult situation arises. With options for desktop-based software, a mobile app, or a physical big green button, the simple act of being able to summon backup can help diffuse a situation. It can also offer peace of mind to faith leaders and volunteers alike that they are not on their own.
Review emergency and evacuation procedures and consider conducting a drill. The effectiveness of an emergency response may depend on the ability to evacuate a large crowd quickly and safely.
Building relationships with local law enforcement and first responders and planning responses to certain scenarios will help ensure everyone knows what to do should the worst happen.
You could consider active shooter training for all regular congregants if you have identified this as a threat. Training like this was identified as one of the reasons that the number of victims at the tragic Pittsburgh synagogue shooting was not higher.
The overriding message is a simple one: be ready. Acknowledging the risk and making preparations could make all the difference.