Violence against religious communities is increasing a challenge for believers in Germany. Jewish communities are particularly affected, but also Christian congregations face rising levels of vandalism and crime. The Conference of European Churches (CEC), which is part of the EU funded Safer and Stronger Communities in Europe (SASCE) project, now held an inter-denominational training for faith leaders to address the issue. It was part of the Annual Assembly of the Arbeitsgemeinschaft Christlicher Kirchen in Deutschland (ACK), Germany’s national church council, on 14 September 2022.
“We are happy about this European initiative, which can benefit congregations in all of our 25 Member Churches in Germany,” says Archpriest Radu Constantin Miron, Chairman of ACK.
“For many, security is unfortunately no issue before it is too late,” emphasizes Rev. Dr Patrick Roger Schnabel, moderator of CEC’s Thematic Group on Human Rights, who conducted training on crisis management and briefing on security and safety of religious communities for the church leaders. The awareness about potential threats is, therefore, the first issue to address with local congregations.
He went on explaining: “We are not only talking about terrorism, which is more likely to affect well-known landmark churches, but we are talking about a wide variety of dangers, starting from hate speech on the internet, for example in the context of a congregation’s engagement for refugees. At some point, such online attacks can spill over into real life and peoples’ life and health is at risk.”
During the training, many different types of security threats were mentioned, including even such from inside a community. The most important issue is to find the right balance between perceiving one’s religious community as a safe space, which is homely and open to all, and to realise that it is also in danger of becoming a target. If some perpetrator – from whichever motivation – wants to attract a high level of publicity and stir an emotional response within society, places of worship or religious officials are almost ideal victims, as such crimes almost always make it into the news. They are also usually easy victims, because they often do not see themselves as involved in conflicts, but rather as social agents in the neighbourhood.
Participants conceded that very few congregations had any routines in place to react to crisis, or that there were hardly people trained for emergency response. If something does happen, reactions are often spontaneous and very late. The material – both in print and online – to set up emergency response mechanisms, was recognised as very helpful by many who participated in the discussion.
Some, however, did also report negative experiences with law enforcement. In many cases, reported crimes weren’t taken very seriously and no visible efforts followed to clear them up. However, it was shared that intervention is most successful, if it happens at an early stage. Dr Schnabel therefore encouraged participants to also engage in dialogue with the local police force in advance of any concrete event, and to distribute the brochure for law enforcement developed within the SASCE project.