Religious leaders look for ways to up security while keeping a doors-open policy

Dan Gross/The Gazette - Parishioners fill the sanctuary for service at Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg on Sunday.

On Sept. 13, two days after an attack in Libya killed four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens, the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI issued a joint intelligence bulletin warning that the risk of violence could increase in reaction to an anti-Islam video posted to YouTube.

The bulletin urged officials and the public — including faith-based organizations — to be on the lookout for threats and suspicious activity. But that was not the first warning they had received that churches, mosques, synagogues and other places of worship can become targets for violence.

While security threats and terrorist attacks have changed the way airports, schools and concerts screen crowds of people, many religious institutions struggle to incorporate security measures into their open-doors philosophies.

In recent years, as churches and other religious institutions in Maryland have faced theft, vandalism and even violence, many are developing strategies to ensure the people who come through their doors for help are, as much as possible, kept safe.

Door to God’

On Aug. 5, a man walked into a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wis., shortly before services started. He shot and killed six worshipers in an attack apparently motivated by ethnic prejudice before killing himself.

Arvinder Uppal, chairman of the Guru Nanak Foundation of America, a Sikh place of worship in Silver Spring, heard about the attack a few hours after it happened, just after GNFA finished its services. She said her first thought was a defensive stance.

“I wanted increased security right away,” she said. “I know at GNFA we have had several hate incidents.”

After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, people threw stones at the building and broke windows, Uppal said. In addition, two senior citizens were assaulted near the building about two years ago. Now a police officer is stationed outside the foundation during its largest weekly service.

Although extra police patrols are encouraging, Uppal said there is a limit to how much security GNFA can add. To include such protection as metal detectors and security checks would violate Sikh beliefs, she said.

Sikh places of worship are called gurdwaras, which, roughly translated, means “door to God,” Uppal said. Larger gurdwaras in India have multiple doors that are open to anyone at all hours of the day.

“How do you close the doors of the most open community in the world? We will not do that,” Uppal said. “We will not change the basic tenets of Sikhism because of one person’s mistake.”

In North Potomac, Bhai Gurdarshan Singh, head granthi of the Guru Gobind Singh Foundation, said he thinks the area’s diverse international community helps keep religious minorities safe.

His gurdwara has a security camera in one corner, although the doors remain unlocked from early morning until late evening so people can come in, bow and read the scripture verse of the day.

“Traditionally, people, before they go to work . . . just come and bow and go,” he said, saying that many stop by on the way home from work as well.

After the Wisconsin attack, a police officer started coming to keep watch during Sunday services, Singh said. An agent from the FBI also came and urged the gurdwara to call if they noticed anything suspicious, such as a stranger taking pictures or writing down car numbers.

Beyond that, the gurdwara does not intend to add security, Singh said.

“There is no legitimate threat,” he said. “I, at least, don’t feel that way.”

Violent attacks on places of worship in the Washington region are rare.

In some cases, the damage is minimal. A church near Damascus had two instances of vandalism in the summer. Someone rearranged the sign to read “God is Dead”; the pastor suspected kids playing a prank. In July 2010, someone sprayed anti-Semitic graffiti on the walls of a synagogue in Olney, and police investigated the vandalism as a hate crime, The Gazette reported.

In other cases, the attacks are deadly. In May, two women were fatally shot at a church in Ellicott City. Police suspected a homeless man they found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in the woods, a statement from the Howard County Police Department said. The shooting took place on a weekday, when few people were in the building. Although the man had visited the church’s food bank, investigators said he was involved in a dispute with church members shortly before the shooting.

Takoma Park Police Officer Carla Magnaye said that, after hearing about the Wisconsin attack, she and others at the department began making an effort to teach the officials of religious institutions how to prevent crime.

“The one thing that we really hadn’t focused on was reaching out to the church and religious communities in Takoma Park, just because we never really believed there was much of a threat to them,” she said. “But you never know.”

Most churches in Takoma Park are locked unless services are being held, Magnaye said.

Duncan McIntosh, the pastor of First Baptist Church of Silver Spring, said his congregation started paying more attention to security about 12 years ago, after someone stole the brass cross and candleholders from the church’s communion table. Now, they are more aware of who is coming and going and careful to lock windows and doors.

“We have found that the problems have diminished because people are alert,” McIntosh said.

Religious institutions are also vulnerable to attacks by people who don’t like their religious views, Magnaye said, or from disgruntled former members. In either case, places of worship are generally not difficult to attack.

“When you think of a church . . . it’s a soft target,” Magnaye said. “It’s open to the public . . . they want people to come, so that really opens them up to risks.”

Places of worship do not need to adopt security measures that would deter visitors or make them feel unwelcome, but they should have some basic safety procedures in place for natural disasters, as well as crime, Magnaye said. One such measure is called a critical incident protocol, which outlines the steps to take in the event of an emergency.

The protocol should include emergency procedures for situations such as violent crime, natural disasters, fires and medical emergencies. Staff should be familiar with the information and know where to find it. Even a few pages kept in the office with emergency phone numbers, the building’s address and a floor plan, with evacuation routes, can help emergency responders quickly get needed information.

Takoma Park police also offer threat assessments, in which officers inspect a building and point out places where security could be tightened. After the Wisconsin attack, police began promoting them specifically to churches, Magnaye said. Two churches took her up on the offer soon thereafter.

Corby Megorden, administrator for Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, said the police are a good starting point for religious institutions that want to improve security.

“Talk to local law enforcement just to find out what’s happening in our area and then, given the size of the church, [ask], ‘What could I do?’ ” he said.

Megorden said that many churches have police officers or others in their congregations who could help; he is a former Navy officer with a background in security.

Regardless of the size of their congregations, churches can take steps to keep the people who walk in their doors as safe as possible, Megorden said.

“You’ve got to talk through all the worst-case scenarios,” he said, “and then pray that we never have to do any of it.”

Avoiding ‘a fortress’

Like Takoma Park, the Montgomery County Police Department also offers risk assessments for religious institutions, as well as businesses and residences.

Some of the tips are rudimentary, such as making sure locks are working and windows are latched. Capt. Paul Starks also suggests putting lights outside the building and trimming back shrubbery so a person can’t hide.

If someone looks suspicious or there is a package that no one recognizes, people should ask management or call law enforcement rather than ignore their instincts, Starks said.

“The police would much rather come and check out the circumstances and then determine it was nothing than come later and have to take a report or manage a much more significant event,” he said.

Starks said that in his experience, most crimes at places of worship are thefts of small electronics or money. Because churches and other religious institutions are usually empty at night, Starks said he has seen some small related church burglaries or incidents of vandalism.

“Thankfully, we’ve . . . been lucky enough not to have a mass tragedy that has occurred because someone has focused their attention on a specific place of worship,” he said.

Although being welcoming to the public is a positive trait, it can make places of worship vulnerable, Starks said.

“Striking that balance sometimes is hard for organizations,” he said.

Places of worship can have people stand outside or by the doors to greet people who enter as they also keep an eye on passing cars and people who are in or around the building, Starks said.

Mohammed Aslam, administrator of the Islamic Center of Maryland, said the Gaithersburg mosque has security cameras and keeps in touch with the police department, but not much security beyond that.

“Most of the time, someone is here all the time, just kind of keeping our eyes open — who’s coming and who’s leaving,” he said.

Several religious organizations contacted declined to speak about their security. Brie Hall, a spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Washington, said the organization does not discuss its security practices for parishes.

“However, we do encourage our pastors to be vigilant and to notify local authorities if they observe any suspicious activity,” she said.

At Temple Beth Ami, a Jewish congregation in Rockville, security is highly important because a school operates out of the building.

Executive Director Janice Rosenblatt said an off-duty county police officer keeps watch when the children are in school. The doors are locked at all times, and visitors are buzzed into the building.

Rosenblatt said the congregation added security about 12 years ago after hearing about a stranger who went from door to door at day-care centers in California until he found one that was unlocked. Beth Ami received a threat assessment and made a contingency plan that staff members update regularly. They also installed about a dozen large boulders in front of the building to keep cars from driving into the windows.

“We don’t want to build a fortress — we just want to keep people safe,” Rosenblatt said.

Although Beth Ami has not had any threats, Rosenblatt said staff members recognize that other religious organizations have been threatened and that such incidents lead them to be cautious.

“I wish we could open our doors again; that would be wonderful. Like we used to,” Rosenblatt said. “But I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

 
Read what others are saying

    3 men shot in Southeast D.C.