Earlier this year, the UN Assembly adopted a resolution proclaiming August 22 the International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief.
At CARE, we recognise the importance of this day both internationally, and more locally in the UK, where it is a fundamental human right that people are able to freely practice their religion without fear of harm or violence on their person or their place of worship.
The newly adopted UN resolution recognises the need to afford the protection not only to worshipers but also to places of worship, where it: :
'Strongly deplor[es] all acts of violence against persons on the basis of their religion or belief, as well as any such acts directed against their homes, businesses, properties, schools, cultural centres or places of worship, as well as all attacks on and in religious places, sites and shrines that are in violation of international law'
Commenting on the UN day, the UN Secretary-General, António Guterres,said:
“The best way to overcome the threat of violence based on religion and belief is by uniting our voices for good, countering messages of hate with messages of peace, embracing diversity and protecting human rights. The world must step up to stamp out anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim hatred, the persecution of Christians and other religious groups, and all forms of racism, xenophobia, discrimination and incitement to violence. As members of the human family, we must nurture mutual understanding.”
“We all have a responsibility to look out for each other, to respect differences and to promote peaceful coexistence.”
To emphasise the need to protect places of worship, the Secretary-General made a statement confirming that the UN will be launching new initiatives to address acts of violence based on religion or belief and a developing a plan of action to safeguard religious sites. This is a very welcome development. CARE hopes that the action plan will make a strong statement and identity active steps that can be taken to also ensure the safety of places of worship more generally.
Attacks on places of worship in the UK
Yesterday, CARE Northern Ireland (CARE NI), following a Freedom of Information request, shed light on the issue of attacks on places of worship in NI. According to the data, there have been 445 attacks on places of worship in the past three years. That means there is, on average, an attack on churchyards, cemeteries and religious buildings almost every other day. Attacks have occurred throughout every one of NI’s 11 policing districts.
CARE is calling for more protection to be in place for churches and other places of worship, including the introduction of a Places of Worship protective security funding scheme, akin to the one existing in England and Wales.
Under the scheme, if places of worship have been subject to acts of hate crime (or are likely to be), those places can apply for financial help. It enables places of worship to obtain funding for necessary security measures, such as through CCTV, better lighting, and fencing.
However, no such scheme exists in NI, despite its troubled history of attacks on places of worship, associated with sectarian tensions. To address the issue, CARE NI will be writing to the party leaders in NI, asking them to ensure a specific manifesto commitment to provide better support for places of worship.
Dr Alistair McCracken, Clerk of Session, Saintfield Road Presbyterian Church said they would support any Government measures to protect churches:
“Following two arson attacks on our Church in July 2016 the initial response was one of anger and frustration quickly followed by asking “Why”?
“There then came a sort of grieving period as we grappled with the practicalities of how to manage the restoration of the buildings.
“As a congregation we would welcome any initiatives by Government to protect Churches from further attacks.”
CARE Northern Ireland’s Policy Officer, Mark Baillie said:
“In a free and democratic society, no-one should be afraid of gathering together with those who share their faith in a place of worship.
“These attacks leave religious groups with property damage, potentially large insurance costs and fears of future attacks.
“The security protection funding scheme which is available in England and Wales for places of worship should be extended to Northern Ireland as a matter of urgency.”
It is vital that attacks on places of worship in NI are properly investigated and reported. Given the historical conflict existing there, even more should be done to ensure that places of worship are safe. If attacks on churches are not monitored effectively, the underlying causes may not be duly addressed, such as if the problem is more of a sectarian issue. There needs to be a more structured approach to investigating acts of violence or it will be impossible to respond to them adequately.
Despite former calls for an effective reporting and protection mechanism to be introduced in Scotland, the Scottish Government has so far not taken any action. CARE for Scotland has been looking into the issue of attacks on places of worship in Scotland and will be making calls for similar protection in the upcoming month.
It is important that the Government recognise attacks occurring on places of worship both at home and abroad, and that more is done to address the underlying causes of such acts. This day marks a significant step forward in recognising the fundamental importance of religious freedom and protection of religious sites and places of worship.