By Arielle Del Turco
Pastor Joshua Chinna Rao watched his church, which had stood for 18 years, burn to ashes in a small village in rural India. Like many others, it had been the target of radicals. "We do not know who burnt the church," Pastor Rao said. "We suspect it was done deliberately to prevent us for worshiping." Such unprovoked attacks against places of worship are becoming common-place. A hearing on Protecting Houses of Worship and Holy Sites, was hosted by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) on Wednesday to address this growing issue.
Places of worship face a variety of threats around the world. Nigerian churches are regularly attacked by the terrorist group Boko Haram and Fulani militants. In other countries, such as Syria, the government itself attacks the places of worship belonging to its own people. A report released last month noted that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime was responsible for attacks on 75 churches since the beginning of the Syrian civil war.
So, why do non-state actors and governments choose to target places of worship? Hassan Abbas attempted to tackle this question at yesterday's hearing. He cited "growing intolerance" which facilitates "the overwhelming prejudice minorities face in South Asia and the Middle East." The state and non-state actors that feel threatened by religious minorities or are simply fueled by hate choose to destroy and damage places of worship because they are an easy target and effective way to harass a religious community. Places of worship are maliciously targeted "to make people feel insecure where they expect to be completely safe."
While the motivations that lead people to attack places of worship are complex and difficult to address, the solution, in part, can be simple. Countries must intentionally direct increased security to places of worship. Why? Because it works.
FRC's President and current USCIRF Chair Tony Perkins noted a powerful example of how security measures can protect religious communities. "The attack on the synagogue in Halle, Germany during Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, is another sobering example of the reemergence of antisemitism around the world... [The gunman] repeatedly shot at the door's lock and set off an explosive device, but thankfully was unable to breach the building due to enhanced security measures that the synagogue recently installed."
These problems are complex, and it often leads to well-meaning political leaders looking for solutions in the wrong places. At a religious freedom event at the U.N. General Assembly this year, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres' argued that in order to protect places of worship, governments must make concerted efforts to combat hate speech. This is misguided. We can never combat the suppression of one freedom of conscience (religious freedom) by suppressing another freedom of conscience (free speech). Free speech and houses of worship both deserve to be respected and should be guarded at the same time.
In September, President Trump announced that the U.S. will dedicate $25 million to protect religious sites and houses of worship around the world. This is a step in the right direction. Yet, the international community also needs to be encouraged to step up and adequately protect their religious communities. The basic freedom for individuals to seek and worship God as they see fit is something that every country should actively work to protect.