Religious Attacks

Violent Attacks and Freedom of Religion

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When mosques, churches, synagogues, and places of worship are attacked by violent actors, these places take reasonable steps to prevent future attacks: typically, they begin to implement countermeasures to protect those who assemble there.

With religious centers increasingly facing potential violence, many organizations and congregations are starting to consider lockdown protocols, security screenings and other measures designed to mitigate the threat. But while these measures may not conflict with the fundamental goals of a school or shopping center, they often conflict philosophically with the idea of a religious center as a place of refuge, inclusion, and spiritual welcome.

What happens to houses of worship when they close their doors and become cautious and vigilant in the face of possible violence? And what happens to democracy when freedom of religion and assembly become difficult to protect from violent threats, cyber threats, or political threats carried out by policy makers who harbor religious hostilities?

In a truly democratic society, is it reasonable to expect religious centers to change their practices and alter their fundamental approach to service and community in order to accommodate a system that can’t protect them?  Where should the changes occur: in the religious center itself, or in the justice and law enforcement systems in the surrounding community?

As heartfelt condemnations and messages of support surge following each attack on a religious center around the world, the growing number and brutality of these attacks are beginning to warrant more from policy makers and world leaders than pro-democracy, anti-hate rhetoric. And as this truth sinks in, the UN is encouraging national action by setting an example. In the spring of 2019, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres announced the development of an Action Plan, led by Miguel Moretinos, High Representative of the UN Alliance of Civilizations.

The plan will address a central goal: to reaffirm and protect the sanctity of all places of worship and “the safety of all worshippers who visit revered sites in a spirit of compassion and tolerance.” According to the Secretary General, “People everywhere must be allowed to observe and practice their faith in peace.”

The plan will require a new approach to the spread of hate on social media, and the separate threat of religiously biased media reporting. Guterres noted that in the US over the past decade, attacks involving Muslim perpetrators or suspects connected to Islam received 357% more coverage than attacks carried out by others. This act of injustice and irresponsibility can be difficult to trace to a single source or media outlet, making accountability a challenging goal.

But as always, the pursuit of peace and justice lie at the foundation of a healthy democracy. While the road to these goals can be riddled with contradiction and compromise, it’s time to dial back on heartfelt but empty expressions of support, and start looking for the elusive, complicated solutions that can protect free media without allowing biased reporting, protect communication and privacy without fanning the flames of hate, and protect safety without violating the free expression of religion and peaceful worship.

To learn how Just Atonement is working to achieve these goals and find these difficult answers, contact our team!

Erin Sweeney is a Philadelphia-based writer, illustrator, and advocate for sustainability and environmental justice.