New Zealand mosque shootings: Attacks on houses of worship show rise of hate crime, religious places more vulnerable globally

FP Staff
Places of worship are 'soft targets' as they reign in a psychological hijack of people. "By targeting a house of worship, rather than a private home or business, the attacker has committed a powerful symbolic transgression: profaning a space that is both sacred and communal."

On Friday, 40 have been shot dead and 20 injured so far in shootings at two mosques in the New Zealand city of Christchurch during afternoon prayers, an attack which has once again shaken the world and directed its attention to the growing number of hate crimes all over the world.

In 2017, 26 were killed at an attack on a church in Sutherland Springs in Texas; nine were dead in a shooting at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015; in 2012, six died at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin; and three at a Jewish Community Center in Overland Park, Kansas, in 2014. These are just some of the recent examples of attacks on places of worship which have proved to be deadly and thus, raised concerns over the safety of community religious places.

Attacks on Jews

After a massacre at a Pittsburgh synagogue in October 2018, it suggested that Jewish centres needed heightened security to protect them from anti-Semitic. In fact, US president Donald Trump suggested that armed guards belong at houses of worship €" a safety measure the Jewish community has deployed for at least two decades, an NBC News report said.

It's a policy that gained new urgency after the 1999 shooting at the North Valley Jewish Community Center in Los Angeles that wounded five, including three young children. Thereafter, many Jewish institutions beefed up security, and the Los Angeles Police Department increased patrols of houses of worship, the report said.

In Britain, the Theresa May government announced that places of worship that have been subjected to or could be vulnerable to hate crime attacks will be supported with a further one million pound funding for protective security. Earlier, funding had been awarded only when places of worship had either been victim to or at risk of a hate attack, including graffiti, defacing of religious symbols or attacks on worshippers.

UK's 'The Places of Worship Security Funding' scheme, which was launched in 2016 and is worth 2.4 million pounds in total, has helped 89 churches, mosques, temples and gurdwaras to install protective alarms, security lighting and CCTV cameras to deter attackers. Synagogues are covered under a separate government-funded scheme administered by the Community Security Trust.

May said, "We are a country of many faiths, and... An attack on one community is an attack on all of us. Freedom of worship, respect, and tolerance for those of different faiths is fundamental to our values and I am determined to stamp out extremism and hate crime wherever it occurs."

She further said, "Security at places of worship is important to provide congregations with peace of mind, but let me be clear where groups or individuals incite hatred or are engaged in vile, religiously motivated criminal activity, they should expect to be prosecuted and face the full force of the law."

But problem not restricted to anti-Semitism alone

Her remarks cam exactly a year later to the Finsbury Park attack in which one person was killed and nine injured when a van driven by Darren Osborne rammed into pedestrians in London' Finsbury Park near the Muslim Welfare House and just 90 metres away from the Finsbury Park Mosque.

Meanwhile, according to The Telegraph's report, The Church of England is also not sufficiently protected from terrorists. In a blog post the Dean of Westminster, the Very Reverend Dr John Hall, acknowledged that churches could become targets but said that staff did not want to "turn the Abbey into a fortress". "Even so, we know that the Abbey is not immune from attack. We need it to be open and welcoming, but also safe," the report quoted him as saying.

The reports of concerns emerged after two terror attacks in Manchester and London, both of which took place close to cathedrals, with Southwark Cathedral even forced to close for several days following the London Bridge attack.

In a piece for the Church of England newspaper, Nick Tolson, a former cathedral verger, said: "Security has been incredibly neglected by places of worship over the past decade despite plenty of warning signs that they need to start taking it seriously and putting in place practical procedures to try and reduce the risk to people who work and attend churches in the UK. Over the last decade, I have visited almost every cathedral and can count on one hand the number of churches that actually have effective security that does the job."

Religious places are 'soft targets'

Attacks on places of worship €" from synagogues to Christian churches to Sikh temples to mosques€" have increasingly become common and targets for extremist violence. Many of these attacks can be explained as violent reinforcement of white supremacy and targeting of perceived liberals, ethnic minorities and revenge strikes against terror attacks carried out by Islamic extremists or jihadists in various parts of the world.

Places of worship are 'soft targets' as they reign in a psychological hijack of people. "By targeting a house of worship, rather than a private home or business, the attacker has committed a powerful symbolic transgression: profaning a space that is both sacred and communal. Attacks on places of worship double not just as attacks on worshippers, but as attacks on the community itself," a Vox report states.

In July 2008, a gunman opened fire at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville, Tennessee, during a church theatre production of the musical Annie, killing two people and wounding seven others. According to the Vox's report, the assailant later told police he did so because he believed that Democrats were "ruining" the United States and that all liberals should be killed, citing the historically progressive policies of the Unitarian Church. Thus, bringing to fore the ideological vengeance angle.

Four years later, an avowed white supremacist and an army veteran attacked a gurdwara, in Oak Creek, Wisconsin killing six people and wounding four more before killing himself. A longtime member of the white power music scene, the assailant had been on federal investigators' radars for years before he committed the act.

In June 2015, in a shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, nine members of the congregation, including the senior pastor were killed by another self-proclaimed white-supremacist who had written frequently and publicly about his desire to kill the non-whites. And yet, he was able to gather arms and carry out the attack raising serious questions on what purpose public surveillance is serving.

After the Pittsburgh shooting, local synagogues reportedly did "lots of training on things like active shooters, and looked at hardening facilities as much as possible." Squirrel Hill, Tree of Life's neighbourhood, is considered the de facto centre of Pittsburgh's Jewish community €" according to a Brandeis University report €" the synagogue represented a powerful symbol of Jewish life. And thus, the attack was symbolic to drive home a message of hate and divide.

Following the Wisconsin gurudwara attack, Tell MAMA, a UK-based group that monitors anti-Muslim attacks tweeted: "Sikh places of worship attacked. Synagogues need security from far right and IS-inspired extremists. Mosques are increasingly becoming fenced off with cameras. This is not what we want for our country."

Muslims victims of Islamic extremism 

Muslims are a minority in the predominantly Catholic country of Philippines and represent about a quarter of the population of the Mindanao region. In January, two people were killed and four others injured in a grenade attack on a mosque in the southern Philippines. The attack in Zamboanga city took place just days after deadly twin blasts at a Roman Catholic cathedral in the island of Jolo and a vote backing wider Muslim self-rule in Mindanao, the country's volatile southernmost region, AlJazeera reported.

Suicide attacks by terror organisation like the Islamic State (IS) on mosques in troubles states like Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan are also not uncommon. Twenty-five people were killed in twin suicide attacks at a Shia mosque in eastern Afghanistan in August 2018. Shia Muslims have been repeatedly targeted by groups affiliated to the IS.

Another terrorist group, Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, carried out a suicide attack on a mosque in Mohmand district, in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), which killed 36 worshippers during Friday prayers in September 2016.

In Pakistan, between 2002 and 2015, about 101 terrorist attacks hit mosques, imambaras and minorities' worship places throughout the country, leading to the deaths of 1,366 worshipers and injuries of 2,748 others, according to the South Asia Terrorism Portal. However, the Islamic nation claimed that its 'Operation Zarb-e-Azb' (an army offensive in North Waziristan that began in June 2014) has played a pivotal role in minimising militancy in the country. "It wiped out safe havens, infrastructures, bomb-making units, training centres and weapons depots of the militants in North Waziristan," officials said in a report by Pakistan Forward.

Despite these actions, during Eid ul Adha in 2016 itself, terrorists targeted a Shia congregation in Shikarpur as one suicide bomber blew up himself injuring 13 people.

To convey and reiterate that Islam does not propagate hate and violence, a leading 400-year-old Islamic seminary in India, the Darul-Ifta Firangi Mahal issued a 'fatwa' against terrorists targeting places of worship and killing innocent people. According to a report published on Rediff, quoting from the 32nd 'Ayat' of 'Sur-e-Mayda' in the Holy Quran, Firangi Mahal chief Maulana Khalid Rasheed pointed out, "God has very explicitly stated that if any human being kills any other human being, he would be guilty of murdering humanity." His fatwa read: "If any Muslim causes harm to any place of worship of indulges in the killing of innocent people, Islam would regard it as the worst possible crime and the Shariat would consider it absolutely unlawful."

Incidents in India

In India, a gurudwara in Amritsar's Adliwal village was attacked with explosives when around 250 followers of the Nirankari spiritual group had gathered for morning prayers on 17 November, 2018. Three were killed and 15 injured in the attack.

There have also been several incidents of churches being attacked and targeted all across the country. Around Christmas in 2018, the worst attack took place in Kowad village of Kolhapur district in Maharashtra, where masked men carrying sharp weapons attacked a Christmas gathering on 23 December. Earlier, On 5 May, 2018 the St. Stephen's College chapel was vandalised and the cross desecrated with pro-Hindutva slogans in the capital city of Delhi.

However, despite assurance from security agencies and anti-terror forces all over the world, the truth is, attackers deliberately choose religious places to created division and disharmony in the society and ignite further hate crimes, eventually perpetuating a cycle of revenge attacks based on religious beliefs and intolerance for peaceful co-existence of other faiths.

Follow LIVE updates on the New Zealand shooting here

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