Guards a re­al­ity at places of wor­ship

In many parts of the world, churches re­quire pro­tec­tion

Times Colonist - - Religion - LORI HINNANT

From the Vat­i­can’s St. Peter’s Square to the Great Syn­a­gogue of Syd­ney, armed guards pro­vide earthly pro­tec­tion for wor­ship­pers as they seek out the di­vine. And still an un­ex­pected noise can send a spasm of fear through a con­gre­ga­tion.

There is a se­cu­rity check­point to reach the West­ern Wall, the holy site of prayer in Jerusalem’s Old City. Shi­ite pil­grims in Iraq, whether on their way to Basra or per­form­ing rit­u­als in Kar­bala, are sur­rounded by uni­formed sol­diers.

Syn­a­gogues, mosques, churches and other houses of wor­ship are rou­tinely at risk of at­tack in many parts of the world. But North Amer­i­can wor­ship­pers are not im­mune to the risk of at­tack that has struck so of­ten in many places.

Eleven peo­ple died in a Pitts­burgh syn­a­gogue last month when an anti-Semitic gun­man burst in­side, rag­ing against Jews. It ranked among the dead­li­est at­tacks on Jews in the United States, a coun­try founded on re­li­gious tol­er­ance and a spirit of wel­come in houses of wor­ship.

In Iraq, houses of wor­ship have been favourite tar­gets for the war­ring par­ties since the 2003 U.S.-led in­va­sion that top­pled Sad­dam Hus­sein, un­leash­ing a wide­spread vi­o­lence and a sec­tar­ian war. Since then, Iraqis have wel­comed the se­cu­rity blan­ket­ing mosques, churches and tem­ples.

“I feel com­fort­able when I see se­cu­rity guards at the mosque gate and their pres­ence brings tran­quil­ity while pray­ing,” said Fad­hil al-Ki­nani, a 45-year-old owner of a con­struc­tion ma­te­ri­als shop in Bagh­dad’s eastern dis­trict of Sadr City, who per­forms the five daily prayer ser­vices in a nearby mosque.

“I agree that such places must be free of arms, but in the Iraqi con­text it is a must and I see no harm in their pres­ence since they are sta­tioned out­side the mosques given the un­pre­dictable se­cu­rity sit­u­a­tion,” said Al-Ki­nani, a fa­ther of four.

But it’s not just the Iraqi con­text. In Den­mark, a Jewish se­cu­rity guard pro­tect­ing the main syn­a­gogue was shot to death in 2015 af­ter block­ing an Is­lamic ex­trem­ist gun­man try­ing to get in­side. Guards are rou­tinely posted out­side ser­vices and rit­u­als for a va­ri­ety of reli­gions in Afghanistan and Pak­istan, yet at­tack­ers still find ways to kill.

Shi­ite cleric Mir Hus­sain Nasiri be­moans the cost ev­er­more-in­tru­sive se­cu­rity has had on con­gre­ga­tions. For most wor­ship­pers, the peace that they once found in their mosques has been re­placed by fear.

“Even the sound of a tea cup drop­ping and break­ing will frighten peo­ple. Im­me­di­ately they think maybe it is an at­tack,” he said. There are metal de­tec­tors out­side the Cop­tic Church that Dina Atef fre­quents, but she’s du­bi­ous that they serve much of a pur­pose.

“We al­ways get the feel­ing that any­thing is bound to hap­pen, which makes us think twice be­fore head­ing there,” she said. “It hap­pens that I shud­der at the sim­plest noise or loud sound when I am pray­ing there,”

Back in the day, the House of the Lord had 212 guards — or so the Old Tes­ta­ment book of Chron­i­cles says — “to­ward the east, west, north and south.”

“You must feel safe to pray,” said the Rev. Patrick Des­bois, a French Holo­caust re­searcher, priest and ad­vo­cate for the Yazidi peo­ple in Iraq. “If you are pray­ing and you have an eye on the back door, it is very dif­fi­cult.”

A Chris­tian mili­tia­man stands guard dur­ing Easter mass in Qaraqosh, Iraq. Syn­a­gogues, mosques, churches and other houses of wor­ship are rou­tinely at risk of at­tack in many parts of the world.

French sol­diers pa­trol out­side Notre Dame cathe­dral in Paris.

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