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Protecting houses of worship

In the global village, violence in one region can lead to violent ramifications half a world away. Religious communities must have an especially heightened awareness of safety and security issues in and around their properties.

“It’s unfortunate, but as tensions in the world rise, people who are innocently gathering to show their religious beliefs can become targets,” says Roger Maslen, Calgary district manager for  G4S Security Services. “This is particularly true for the Jewish community. When tensions run high in the Middle East it gets tense for communities every where in the world.”

He says many houses of worship and religious institutions must deal with the costs of increasing security on somewhat limited budgets, but it is critical to ensure that someone does a security audit to review things like exterior lighting, alarm systems, door and window locks. This decreases the likelihood of vandalism, burglary and arson, in addition to violent attacks on people.

“You don’t really have to spend a lot of money, but many buildings were built when it wasn’t common to worry about religious buildings being attacked,” he says. “Once a year, it is a good idea to have someone check the entire building — are the locks working, are the alarm points working, are the window locks relatively modern and in good working order. It is not that different than doing a review of any building where the public has access.”

Maslen has provided security details for one Calgary synagogue during High Holiday services during Roshashana and Yom Kippur, traditionally a time when every faithful Jew is expect to attend services.
“When I went into consult with the leadership, I wasn’t all that sure what the practices were, so I took the time to consult with a Jewish colleague so that I understood about the faith, and what the community accepts and what won’t work.”

“We set up an access control system where only members with ID cards could get into the building through a narrow point of entry,” he says. “If they didn’t have that card, they didn’t get in — even if they had been members for years. That caused a bit of upset, but it was resolved when we had someone from the synagogue vouch for them.”

Security officers did a visual sweep of the entire area around the synagogue, and were posted in the parking lot.

“That turned out to be a bonus. It was a visual deterrent, but it also provided an added sense of security for anyone who had to park a distance from the building to see there were people on the lookout,” he says. “We also had a couple of off-duty police officers in attendance. It never hurts to wave the flag that there is a presence there.”

God and security professionals work together in order to protect people who gather in houses of worship, says Rabbi Mitch Mandel of Aish Hatorah and the Thornhill Community Shul in Thornhill ON, just north of Toronto.

“It’s like this: if someone has to have an operation and all goes well, everyone congratulates the surgeon — of course, this is the right thing to do. But, no one thanks the scalpel. After all, it was the tool used to create the successful outcome,” says Rabbi Mandel. “We use security people and take their advice about what to do to keep people safe. I believe they are tools of the Almighty, sent to keep us safe — but we have to listen to their advice.”

Lou Hoffer is the Shul’s resident security consultant, and a member of the congregation. A former Toronto police officer, Hoffer is now in private security, working with clients to do security audits and provide security services to the entertainment and arts community.

“The Jewish community seems particularly vulnerable to hate crimes based on our religion and religious practices, but faithful people of all religions are targets if the leadership is not focussed on security of the property,” says Hoffer. “You can’t become complacent about it. You have to be proactive, not reactive about security issues — hoping nothing bad will happen. It isn’t of question of if something happens. It is more a question of when something happens.”

Religious institutions might argue they can’t afford to increase security, but in his view that’s slapping a price tag on everyone who gathers to worship.

“You can’t make this about the bottom line. Putting proper security in place might mean you have to spend some extra money on lighting, alarms, or closed circuit television cameras. But, at the end of the day, you are investing in the safety of human beings.”

Rabbi Mandel says the security of the congregation is paramount to the leadership. The Shul uses CCTV cameras throughout the building, narrowed entry points during major events, and identifiable security professionals at times like the High Holidays.

“There is a theological viewpoint and a morale obligation to take care of ourselves and each other. The synagogue — all religious buildings — these are places of life — the essence of life. We welcome people to be with us, but the welcome sign is off the door if we perceive a threat to the safety of the congregation.”
Rabbi Mandel adds that as a Rabbi, he has never felt particularly unsafe in doing his job. However, as a Jew, he has been hit by objects thrown from cars and taunted by insults as he and his family walk home from Sabbath services.

“I have been nervous and made conscious that Jews around the world are often not safe,” he says. “And, I think that the Jewish community might be like the canaries in the mine when it comes to religious tolerance. If we are the targets now, I think we are just on the identifiable front lines. We should all worry when religious communities are attacked.

Rev. Nicola Skinner, priest in charge at All Saints’ King City, an Anglican Church about 30 km north of Toronto, says religious institutions are placed in an impossible conundrum between the vulnerable in society and the need for security.

“The problem is that we are inured by the Old and New Testaments to be welcoming and open — and that is true of all monotheistic traditions,” she says. “We are commanded by God at all times to welcome the stranger, the alienated, and give them our help. The fear in many quarters is that if we become too security conscious then we are getting in the way of what we stand for. That being said, we have to take precautions.”

In her native England, Rev. Skinner served in a parish where evening services were routinely loudly, and sometimes violently, interrupted by a mentally disturbed resident of the community.

“It got to the point that we would lock the doors when we reckoned that everyone who was likely to turn up was there,” she says. “Until the bishop found out and roundly castigated us for locking the doors. It ended up that we had to call in the police, who cautioned the man and told him he was not to come to church. The whole thing was scary and upsetting. Church congregations and church leaders everywhere in the world deal with this sort of thing on a pretty regular basis.”

And sometimes, there are tragic outcomes. In March of this year, a priest in southern Wales was stabbed to death by a member of the community on the front steps of the parsonage.

The murder has prompted the Church of England to step up efforts to ensure clergy and their families live in safe housing with effective exterior lighting, and that security audits identify and eliminate any hiding places for attackers in and around church properties.

The national church is also urging clergy to take advantage of conflict resolution and self defence training offered by National Church Watch www.nationalchurchwatch.com

Formed in 1998, the organization has representation from the U.K.’s major faith groups, police, fire, and insurance professionals. They  all work together to make places of worship, their congregations, and clerics safer by offering training, seminars, security audits and downloadable security manuals.

National Church Watch reports being a cleric in the UK is among the country’s higher rise jobs. Each year, 12 per cent of clergy are assaulted and physically injured in the course of their work.

 “One of the scariest times I’ve ever had as a priest was when I was in England and doing a home visit in preparation for a funeral. I was locked in a home with the son of the deceased. He was clearly not too distraught over the death of his mother, but was interested in doing me harm.”

Rev. Skinner told the man her husband would be looking for her and managed to leave. The incident left her unnerved, prompted her to change her home visiting policy, and now she is never without her cellphone.
“When I do a home visit, I ask that there be members of the family present. In addition, someone from my home or office knows exactly where I am,” she says. “I am there to provide comfort and confidential counsel, but it has to be on safe terms.

“Sadly, there is no other way. Clergy are often under suspicion of being predators, but we are very often preyed upon — we just don’t talk about it.  I think that is why people still think that houses of worship are the safest places on earth. The truth is we are all vulnerable. We need to be aware and take all sensible precautions — and pray it all works out.”


June 27, 2007
By Nancy Devine

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