By Stephen Bryen
The Department of Homeland Security budget for 2017 is set at $40.6 billion, with $7.6 billion going to the Transportation Security Administration primarily for airports.
With this large budget it is rather surprising that the Department of Homeland Security, through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has a budget of only $20 million each year for protecting houses of worship under its Nonprofit Security Grant Program, where most of the grants are to faith-based institutions.
There are 384,000 congregations in the United States. With an average grant capped at $75,000, $20 million does not go very far. Annual funding needs easily top $1 billion, meaning that available funds are woefully short of the mark.
There is little doubt that threats to religious institutions are growing in the United States just as these threats have increased in Europe.
While the Jewish community, synagogues and predominantly black churches have borne the brunt of attacks and intimidation, these types of threats are not reserved only for them.
The attack on the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs Texas, where 26 parishioners were murdered and more than 20 others wounded by a shooter illustrates how these attacks can occur against church communities that are not generally thought to be in the direct line of fire.
In Washington DC the community has organized the Clergy Ambassador Program set up on an urgent basis to address threats to DC churches.
A 2016 report “Undeniable: The Survey of Hostility to Religion in America,” lists 1,285 cases of attacks on religious institutions. Of these, in the past 15 years there have been 780 deadly attacks.
An attack, possibly connected with a burglary at the Mater Misericordiae (Mother of Mercy) Mission In Phoenix resulted in the death of one priest and the wounding of another.
In France’s Normandy town of Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray, a French priest Jacques Hamel was murdered by a terrorist. Also in Algeria back in “March 1996 seven monks from the Cistercian monastery of Our Lady of Atlas in Tibhirine near Médéa were kidnapped and held for two months before being killed, allegedly by members of the Groupe Islamique Armé, an Islamist group that was fighting the governments of France and Algeria.”
Attention has to be given not only to actual attacks but also to threats, which have multiplied in recent years. As reported in the Miami Herald, “Violent threats are ‘definitely on the rise,’ said Shabbir Motorwala, who heads up the Coalition of South Florida Muslim Organizations, known as COSMOS. ‘People are more cautious right now. They are worried about their children.’”
Many churches get intimidating phone calls and email messages; church and synagogue web sites are hacked and filled with filth and threats; emails and texts are received by church leaders. In some cases there is stalking around church and synagogue properties, and vandalism that is just a half a step short of an actual physical attack on the congregants. Synagogues have been painted with anti-semitic and Nazi graffiti, and blood and excrement have been thrown at church buildings. Torah scrolls, prayer books, bibles and other religious objects have been stolen, burned, torn up or otherwise destroyed. A Norfolk synagogue was recently vandalized.
Between 1995 and 1996 some 30 black churches were set on fire by arsonists.
In the United States we have both homegrown and imported terrorism and offshoots of both. Additionally we have unaffiliated killers and lunatics who copycat the big terrorist operators.
Most religious institutions want to be welcoming and open, as much as possible, but it is no longer feasible to leave religious institutions unprotected.
DHS needs a budget that is truly commensurate with the threat. When you consider that there have been far fewer airline incidents than church attacks, yet each year more than $7 billion is being spent to protect airline passengers, while just as many folks are exposed to danger when they go to pray or study the bible, or send their kids for religious instruction.
Today it is reported that the United States has spent more than $5.6 trillion on Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria fighting terrorism. Going forward, as ISIS is almost defeated but its terrorist activities are rapidly spreading in our direction, better protection of our faith based institutions is a national security necessity. That means we have to make the resources available including a significant increase in funding for vital security grants. A $1 billion annual program seems the right objective. Let’s see if Congress and the Administration can show the needed effort, care and leadership to get this done.