Protecting Places of Worship

Tuesday, 24th April 2018

Protecting Places of Worship

Recent events have shown the fluid nature in attack methodology used by terrorists to attack soft and vulnerable targets; none more so than the slaying of Father Jacques Hamel in Nantes, France yesterday. There is no need to use traditional methods such as explosive devices and firearms, both of which are expensive, resource heavy and more likely to be identified by security services. Terror and panic can be equally created by individuals or small groups using knives, axes or vehicles; with equally horrific results.

Whilst these methods of attack are not new and have been used for decades it has always been in far off places where the news doesn't normally reach the West. The difference is that the recent, unsophisticated attacks have occurred on European and US soil and this is newsworthy! The newsworthiness however is a double edged sword as publicity is the fuel that groups such as ISIL need to attract recruits and funding whilst at the same time demonstrates that you do not have to travel to Syria, North Africa or the Middle East to carry out acts in the name of ISIL (these attacks are not in the name of ISLAM). Unfortunately, the 'success' (in terrorist terms) of these attacks only means that there is an increasing likelihood of them occurring in far more places and with much greater frequency.

Places of worship have always been vulnerable to attack, Christian churches in Pakistan (Peshawar Catholic Church - pictured) and Egypt, Shia mosques around the world, Synagogues etc. have all been targeted  in different ways by terror or hate crimes.  They are places where people gather for worship which therefore means there has to be access for the congregation/followers; which also creates a means access for attackers.

The UK government recently launched a fund for places of worship to help reduce the impact of hate crime (which saw a massive increase following the UK Brexit vote). Following yesterdays tragic event this funding and the need for it is going to be in far greater demand. However, good intentions and actions can be severely undermined by a naivety about the benefits of certain solutions. If the fund is to purchase CCTV and alarm systems why? What are you hoping to achieve by installing either? An alarm system is good as a crime prevention method but is it going to stop or prevent hate crimes or terrorist acts, no. CCTV systems have a limited protective value and only then if the aggressors/criminals are concerned with being identified. (They do have an excellent post incident value for law enforcement but the idea is to prevent incidents in the first place.) Again, what is the real value apart from providing a limited piece of mind.

In order to have a meaningful impact on the protection of places of worship I would concentrate on three key areas of protection: physical enhancements, personal safety & security and operational practises. 

Physical Enhancements 

Meaningful physical enhancements are difficult to implement as they have to be breached to allow congregations/followers into the place of worship. However, some practical steps can still be taken. Protection from vehicles can be created (subject to planning permission) by creating aesthetically pleasing raised flowerbed or concrete/stone benches. Doors with appropriate locks can be used that provide a degree of robustness when worship is not taking place. Historically there was a place of sanctuary where the clergy, priest etc. could move to if attacked; consider creating the same with a robust door, locks and means of communication.

If arson and criminal damage is a concern then glazing could have security grade laminates added which will help reduce the impact of any attack by preventing or delaying entry into the place of worship.

I believe that it is prudent for the security at the residences of clergy/preachers etc. to be reviewed and if necessary enhanced. There is a legal obligation in some countries to ensure that employees duty of care needs are being met; that includes protecting clergy etc. from foreseeable risks, including hate crime and terror. 

Personal Safety and Security

Generally it is difficult to physically attack a religion or destroy a place of worship. However those priests, imams and other clergy who deliver or lead services on behalf of a religion are accessible, and therefore vulnerable. Whilst at the present time there may be a lot of concern about personal security following the events in Paris in most cases this will subside if nothing were to happen for a period of time, this is human nature.

The best way to protect oneself and those whom enter places of worship is to be and maintain situational awareness and understand the realistic risks and dangers that exist. It is only by being aware of ones surroundings and understanding the risks can individuals have any realistic chance of avoiding or reacting in an appropriate manner to disengage from it. Training and educational programmes that enable this (and not the creation of ninja's) can add a real benefit to religious organisations and go a long way of meeting these requirements. Incident management and response could also be included along with a whole host of other security and safety topics; however the important thing is to ensure that it is based on realistic risks that exist or can be expected.

Operational Practises

As with many other venues places of worship have requirements to provide a service to customers (followers, congregation etc.). Some of these practises involve activities at the place of worship whilst others may be in the community or at home. What activities are undertaken, by whom and where should all be reviewed and assessed for additional risks that they may bring. If risks are identified but are acceptable (employers have to establish risk tolerance levels for employees to follow) continue on, if they are identified but with modification are manageable then do so. If however the activities increase the risks to unacceptable levels then avoid the activity.


Unfortunately places of worship have been targeted for hate crime and terrorist acts, and this is likely to increase. The anti-Islamic sentiments that the right wings of Europe are fuelling are counter productive and only helps radicalise those within the Muslim communities who feel alienated and vulnerable. It is only by working together in a sensible manner can the threats and vulnerabilities that exist in places of worship be addressed and made more secure.

Where religious institutions (including faith based NGO's) do not have appropriate policies, practises and procedures I would recommend that this be one of the first courses of action undertaken in order to ensure any measures that are introduced are proportionate and risk based.

Help, advice and guidance are available for most governments interior ministries, Security educational bodies (ASIS Intl., The Security Institute, etc.) or specialist security companies and consultancies.

I am happy to try and answer any questions that this post may raise and I look forward to additional comments from fellow security professionals around the world who may have a different view but where collectively advice and guidance is given that provides help and assistance to the reader.

If need be I will try and answer any specific questions that this post may raise.