Hearing warns of increasing attacks on holy sites, houses of worship

Washington D.C., Oct 24, 2019 / 11:02 am (CNA).- The protection of holy sites and houses of worship was the subject of a recent hearing held by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).

“Houses of worship and other religious sites should be sanctuaries where worshippers feel safe to practice their faith,” said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council and USCIRF chair. “Under international law, the ability of religious communities to establish and maintain houses of worship is an essential element of the freedom of religion or belief.”

However, he warned, “violent attacks on houses of worship are increasingly occurring globally, turning these sacred and peaceful spaces into unimaginable sites of bloodshed.”

USCIRF, an independent, bipartisan U.S. government commission, has worked since 1998 to monitor religious freedom abroad and make recommendations to Congress, the president and the Secretary of State about policies to advance religious freedom.

At an Oct. 23 hearing in the Dirksen Senate Building, the commission discussed what was described as a worrying trend of increasing attacks against religious sites and symbols.

“In addition to houses of worship, different types of buildings and properties that are significant to religious communities, such as cemeteries, monasteries, or community centers, are also targeted,” Perkins said. “Gravestones of Jewish people have been defaced with swastikas. Buddhist educational centers have been bulldozed. Crosses torched. No faith is immune from this violence.”

These attacks aim to spread fear and harm religious groups, he said. He noted that USCIRF recommended in its most recent annual report that the U.S. government create programs to train and equip officials and communities to protect places of worship.

Dr. Hassan Abbas, distinguished professor of international relations at the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies, spoke at the hearing, noting than in many attacks on religious sites, “the attackers were not known as anti-religion per se.”

Scholarship and research suggest that houses of worship are attacked due to their significance in the community’s religious and social identity,” he said.

“Houses of worship are attacked to make people feel insecure where they expect to be completely safe,” he said. Such sites are also considered “soft targets,” since they are open, unprotected spaces.

Abbas encouraged countries to promote counter-narratives to extremism, offer security training to religious institutions, and foster inter-faith dialogue to prevent violence. He also encouraged nations to follow the example of New Zealand, where political leaders not only denounced the 2019 Christchurch mosque attacks, but were also visibly “seen joining and sympathizing with the families of the dozens of individuals killed and injured.”

Sam Brownback, U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, said attacks against religious sites and symbols by both governments and non-state actors pose “an ongoing, worldwide crisis.”

“In the face of these challenges, the United States is responding both in principle and action, working vigorously to help advance the right of all people worldwide to practice their faith,” he said.

The United States is engaging with other nations on this issue, Brownback said.

He pointed to the two unprecedented Ministerials to Advance Religious Freedom hosted by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in 2018 and 2019. These meetings gathered delegations from more than 100 countries, as well as more than 1,000 religious and civil society leaders to reaffirm a commitment to religious freedom and discuss ways to promote it.

This year, at the end of the ministerial, a statement endorsed by more than 45 countries was released on the importance of protecting holy sites.

The U.S. has also worked through conferences and other events to promote the protection of cultural and religious sites, Brownback said.

“They’re important to our shared history. They’re critical for building respect among diverse communities and essential to cultivating peace.”

At a United Nations event last month, U.S. President Donald Trump announced the creation of a $25 million fund for the protection and restoration of religious sites and relics around the world.

The ambassador stressed the need for international cooperation in making progress toward the advancement of international religious freedom, specifically the protection of holy sites and houses and worship.

“We have much to do. We have a moment, I believe, where there is a lot of interest in the world community in doing this,” he said. “I think if we can find the right way to do this, in an inclusive, engaging manner, I think we’re going to find a lot of support around the world.”

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