US places of worship tighten security after shootings

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FILE – A policeman father outside the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue, Sunday, Jan. 16, 2022, in Colleyville, Texas. In January, four of them were taken hostage by a man armed with a pistol during a Shabbat service. (AP Photo/Brandon Wade, File)

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Reverend Steven Marsh never thought he would see the day when his church in Laguna Woods, Calif. — a town of 16,500 populated largely by retirees — was spending $20,000 a month on security.

Then a gunman opened fire May 15 during a luncheon at the Presbyterian Church in Geneva, where Marsh is the senior pastor, killing one and injuring five other members of a Taiwanese congregation meeting there. Officials said the man, motivated by political hatred against Taiwan, chained the church doors and hid firebombs inside before shooting at the gathering of elderly church members.

Places of worship are meant to be places of shelter, reflection and peace, where strangers are welcome. But the recent string of high-profile mass shootings in the United States is a reminder that violence can happen anywhere, prompting some religious leaders to step up security.

At the Presbyterian in Geneva, armed security guards now stand guard every day of the week and during Sunday services. The church is also adding more security cameras, developing an active-fire plan, and applying for funding from the Department of Homeland Security.

“We’re not trying to militarize the church,” Marsh said. “We prayed about it and made the decision to have armed security as a leap of faith.”

Without the new security measures, Marsh predicted that a mass exodus of the congregation and schools from the church campus would have followed the shooting.

Creating a space that is both safe and welcoming is possible, said Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, former spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas.

In January, he and three others were taken hostage by a gunman during a Shabbat service. Cytron-Walker threw a chair at the shooter – a brave act that helped them escape safely – after a nearly 11-hour standoff. He credits the many rounds of active shooter training he went through.

“When you can’t get away or find a hiding place, you have to find a way to act and fight back,” Cytron-Walker said. “When we were most afraid that he would kill us, I saw a moment that I had been looking for all day.”

Cytron-Walker now runs Temple Emanuel in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. As he works on a safety plan with his new congregation, he is aware of how a welcoming synagogue can improve safety “because someone who wants to do harm can see that they won’t be able to walk from anonymously”.

Historically, shrines have been vulnerable to violent attacks – from bombings of black churches during the civil rights era to more recent shootings in the United States at mosques and Sikh gurdwaras. In the United States, FBI hate crime statistics show that incidents in churches, synagogues, temples and mosques increased by 34.8% between 2014 and 2018.

“All religions are under attack in America by radicals and extremists,” said Alon Stivi, security consultant for synagogues, Jewish community centers and day schools. Some devotees are reluctant to come forward.

“They ask a lot more questions: ‘Should I come to weekly services or just come for the holidays? And if I come, do I have to bring my children? »

Religious leaders who once preferred to leave security in the hands of the divine are taking precautions that seemed unthinkable years ago, Stivi said. More worshipers are also carrying concealed handguns to services, he said.

From $25 million in 2016 to $180 million last year, the federal government has steadily increased the amount of funding it sets aside to help the religious community with security costs, Stivi said. But not all religious leaders know they can apply, he said.

Past attacks on places of worship and other public spaces have prompted religious leaders to assess – sometimes for the first time – whether more can be done to keep their flocks safe.

Today, an armed policeman monitors Sunday services at Mt. Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, said the Reverend Kylon Middleton, who leads the congregation. When an officer cannot be on campus for church events, members carrying concealed weapons keep watch.

“It’s sad, but we’re in a time where we need to have armed security to protect our people,” he said.

The church is two blocks from the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. In 2015, a self-proclaimed white supremacist opened fire at a Bible study and killed nine congregants, including the senior pastor. Middleton said the late pastor was like a brother to him.

In the aftermath of the massacre, discussions of security at Mount Zion have factored worship style into the equation, including the need for some to always keep their eyes open, especially when most have theirs closed in the dark. prayer, Middleton said.

“Nobody ever thought that mass shootings would happen in churches, which are holy shrines where you can escape the world and seek spiritual refuge,” he said. “When this space has been violated, it creates restlessness of the mind.”

After the 2018 massacre at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Rabbi Jon Leener met with local New York police to discuss security at the BKLYN base, his home-based ministry that hosted thousands of people.

For years, he and his wife, Faith, unlocked their front door just before Shabbat dinners, believing in a Judaism where no door is closed or locked. That changed after Tree of Life – the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in US history. Leener also installed a security camera and a buzz-in system for visitors. He hired an armed guard after this year’s Texas hostage situation.

“It’s terribly unfortunate that we live in a time where we have to compromise our openness in the face of the threat of violence, but that’s just the reality of the moment,” Leener said.

It is a balancing act for many. Marsh said the shooting at his church happened because members of the Taiwanese congregation greeted the shooter – someone they did not know.

“The church should be welcoming to all, and we can’t lose that,” he said.

“Are there ways for an active shooter to get back to our campus? Yes. But we have to be prepared for it to happen again. Otherwise, we would all be forced to go through metal detectors. It would no longer be a church.

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Henao reported from New York.

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