At Elkridge summit, faith leaders will focus on keeping congregations safe

Lisa Philip
Contact ReporterHoward County Times
"[Houses of worship] are supposed to be places where anyone can walk in and find a source of peace."

In May, nine people were killed when Dylann Roof opened fired on a prayer meeting at a black church in Charleston, S.C. Last year, a former leader of the Ku Klux Klan killed three people outside a Jewish Community Center in the suburbs of Kansas City, Mo. In 2012, a white supremacist shot and killed six worshippers at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wis.

These violent acts, among others that have occurred in recent years, have targeted houses of worship intended to offer shelter and comfort to anyone who might need it. Yet their openness makes faith-based institutions vulnerable to attack.

"They are supposed to be places where anyone can walk in and find a source of peace," said Zainab Chaudry, Maryland outreach manager for the Council on American Islamic Relations. "The challenge is, how can you secure a building that is meant to be open to everybody?"

There are ways of doing so while maintaining openness; a few companies sell security systems that are tailored to faith-based institutions. But, according to Chaudry, most pastors, imams and rabbis — leaders of all religions — do not know about such systems or security strategies.

"Through conversations with faith leaders," Chaudry said, "I realized that many of them do not have a strong sense of how to prevent these kinds of attacks or how to protect their houses of worship and congregations."

She used the recent arson of a Baltimore County mosque as an example. In October, juveniles set fire to the Gulzar-e-Madina mosque, previously the site of the Old Millford Mill Swim Club.

"The community there was completely stunned," Chaudry said. "They didn't know how to handle it. They didn't have the basic tools that they needed to be able to address incidents like this when they happen."

In an effort to equip houses of worship with these tools, Chaudry and her organization are hosting the Maryland Emergency Preparedness Summit for Faith Leaders on Dec. 10 at the Center for Social Change in Elkridge. The event will bring faith leaders from around the state together with local and federal security experts for a day of learning about preventing and remediating attacks on their organizations.

"To be able to have this opportunity to make federal and state level agencies available to meet with faith leaders and answer questions that they have: it feels like you're doing something that could help these communities," Chaudry said.

The summit was organized by the Maryland Outreach Department of the Council on American Islamic Relations in partnership with the Governor's Office of Community Initiatives and the Maryland Commission on Human Rights.

In September, the sheriff's office in Harford County hosted a similar event for over 40 church officials about handling an active shooter situation. But the Maryland Emergency Preparedness Summit is the first event of this nature to be held for faith leaders across the state, Chaudry said, and over 50 are already signed up to participate.

According to a press release, the event comes in the midst of a "growing number of threats targeting faith-based institutions." The weeks since the Nov. 13 Paris attacks and days since the mass shooting in San Bernardino have brought a growing number of threats against mosques, specifically.

In late November the national office of the Council on American Islamic Relations reported that the number of discriminatory acts against Muslims and mosques following the Paris attacks exceeded the quantity reported to the organization in the weeks after 9/11.

"There are mosques that have been vandalized or have been threatened almost every single day and those are the only ones that are being reported," Chaudry said. "That certainly plays into the inclination to host this."

A few hours after the Nov. 13 attacks on Paris, a man in St. Petersburg, Flo. left a voicemail at the Islamic Center there threatening to "firebomb" the building and "shoot whoever is there in the head." On Nov. 16, vandals covered the door of the Islamic Center in Plugerville, Texas with feces and threw feces-covered pages of the Quran onto the center's floor.

These are just two of the many threats and violent acts against mosques reported to the Council in the past three weeks.

Chaudry said that her organization did not want to make the summit exclusive to Muslim faith leaders, because congregations of other faiths are not immune to danger.

"From the Jewish or Muslim or Christian or Buddhist or Sikh faiths, most faith leaders do not have the training or the basic level of expertise to secure their houses of worship," she said. "Most of them don't have an emergency operations plan in place that their staff is familiar with."

Experts from the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Justice, the Maryland Emergency Management Agency and the Maryland State Police will talk to summit attendees about techniques for preventing attacks — from where to put up surveillance cameras and perimeter sensors to strategies for countering intolerance. Experts will also talk about developing an emergency plan to put into action should a situation occur.

"It's one of those summits that you hope there won't be a need for a follow-up," Chaudry said. "But we would be willing to have this annually or however frequently is necessary."

The Maryland Emergency Preparedness Summit for Faith Leaders will take place from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Thursday, Dec. 10. Those who are affiliated with a faith-based organization and interested in attending must register for the event at www.md-emergencypreparedness.eventbrite.com by Tuesday, Dec. 8. Registration costs $10 per person.

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