As Washington, D.C., New York City and Philadelphia prepare for the visit of Pope Francis (September 22-27, 2015), the U.S. government security apparatus and private security firms are working double-time to augment the security surrounding this head-of-state visit. As for any dignitary visit, security is paramount, but we need to ask ourselves why the Vatican is spending millions of dollars in addition to their traditional security apparatus and why the security provided by the U.S. government is so overt and more robust than any other head of state in recent memory.
The answer might be surprising to most Americans. The threats in the United States against the Pope are unprecedented in both volume and credibility. In fact, on September 13, Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX), who is the Chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, told ABC’s “This Week” program that American authorities had already stopped one plot against Pope Francis and were monitoring many others.
The Pope, while a head of state, is obviously also a religious leader and it is the symbol he represents as the leader of the Catholic Church that the Vatican is especially worried about protecting during this trip.
As ISIS’ attacks on Christian groups mount throughout the Middle East and rhetoric threatening to destroy Christianity increases as evidenced by the ISIS flag flying over St. Peter’s Square being depicted in various ISIS propaganda medias. Vatican security officials are growing ever more worried that ISIS will stop at nothing to destroy the very symbol of peace and Christianity known throughout the world, especially emblematic if an attack is staged inside the United States.
The danger ISIS poses cannot be overstated. Fundamentally their goal is nothing short of the full and total destruction of any religion other than their perverted version of Islam (yes, even other Muslims and especially Shia Muslims). They do not support religious freedom anywhere and ISIS demonstrates daily to the world that they neither respect nor tolerate other religions. To ISIS, the American display of religious freedom is a disease, whose only cure is complete and total annihilation.
This eradication starts with symbols of freedom and religion, not only in Iraq and Syria but in America as well. The two biggest symbols converge in next week in the United States. However, for an attack to be deemed “successful”, it does not have to directly touch the Pope or even occur within the security perimeter of his activities. Equally damaging would be an attack upon any religious place of worship or school. For this reason churches, synagogues, mosques and religious groups of all persuasions should examine their security protocols and practices.
Could you spot someone who means you harm? Would your leaders and parishioners know how to respond to increase your chance of survival? Indeed, before either of these are considered, groups must contemplate do they have any deterrent practices in place to prevent being a target in the first place. These topics, while uncomfortable and scary must be considered. We are a target, as a nation and as people of faith, any faith.
Any attack by ISIS or their supporters during the Pope’s visit to the United States will be viewed as successful, no matter the actual outcome. The perpetrators will be hailed as heroes throughout the radical Islamic community, and ISIS will gain in strength if the two most hated symbols of religious freedom are attacked simultaneously.
The Vatican is planning for this; Catholic Churches where the Pope will be visiting are planning for this. However, churches just blocks or a few miles from where the Pope will be are not. Other religious centers such as Jewish synagogues (Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar is the 23rd of September when the Pope will be in Washington, DC.) are not planning for this symbolic visit and the target it presents to radical Islamists nor are we preparing for the continued target America and our religious freedom represents to these extremists.
An attack on our religious centers is, unfortunately, nothing new, but the threat has seemingly morphed into such an ambiguous one that we are often overwhelmed by it. Previous attacks on churches should have us ever vigilant and especially the recruitment of church-going women in the United States should move us to address our security needs. In June 2015, The New York Times published an article about a 23-year-old Sunday School teacher and babysitter who converted to Islam and entered into the radicalization process without anyone in her community or church finding out.
In April 2014, a 19-year-old Colorado woman, Shannon Maureen Conley, was arrested at Denver International Airport after admitting to FBI agents she was attempting to travel to Syria to assist ISIS in their “jihad.” Conley’s suspicious behavior during church is what spurred the initial investigation.
Unfortunately, there are more cases similar to these that have yet to become public. FBI investigations are on going in every state in the union and ISIS recruitment is similarly happening in every state and it is unfortunately only a matter of time before the another girl or boy next door is revealed to have become radicalized.
Those that wish us harm already know our religious centers are vulnerable, and they know the symbolism that would be achieved in successfully carrying out an attack against us. Let’s make no mistake that ISIS and other terrorist groups are planning attacks against the United States and religious centers continue to reside at the top of their list.
It is only a matter of time and we can no longer pretend that our enemies aren’t targeting the freedoms our places of worship represent. That being said, security is often viewed as cumbersome and carries with it a negative connotation in most communities. This negative sentiment typically surrounds the perception that security impedes openness and accessibility that are tenants of our free society. We do not need to go to extremes and wall ourselves off to be safe, even though some say this is the safest path.
Often times those drastic security methods have an opposite effect, and build additional fear and resentment. The perceived sliding scale of security and openness is a failed premise. Both can and should be achieved together in harmony, not as one takes from the other. Techniques and procedures can and should be used to ensure that security enables our religious communities not disable them.
Yes, American religious organizations, churches, synagogues and mosques alike are targeted everyday. We need to be mindful and not fearful of the threats we face as a religiously free and open society. While we might be overwhelmed initially, we can deal with these threats in manner that not only secures our Constitutional rights but also ultimately increases our engagement with our congregants and between our religious groups.