Originally published in The Guardian.com
A British charity that provides assistance to Christians in predominantly Muslim countries is hosting a training session in London on Tuesday to advise UK churches on protecting their premises and congregations against an attack by Islamic State militants.
The Barnabas Fund, which says it offers “practical aid for the persecuted church”, has invited more than 50 church leaders to participate in the half-day session at Westminster’s Central Hall, to be led by the charity’s international director, Patrick Sookhdeo. Police representatives will be present to give advice.
An email with the subject line “Protecting British churches from terrorist attack” warns: “Given the dramatic growth of IS in the Middle East and the increased anti-Christian rhetoric and attacks from that group, plus the recently thwarted attempts to attack churches in Paris, the possibility of an Isis attack on British churches cannot be discounted.”
The email — leaked to the Church Times and seen by the Guardian — continues: “The meeting will consider critical vulnerabilities and how these can best be mitigated. It will include practical advice for realistic measures that local church leadership can adopt to protect their congregations and buildings without causing undue alarm or hindering a congregation’s ministry and outreach.”
Sookhdeo, a former adviser on Islam to the Ministry of Defence, said the conference was being held against a backdrop of “growing anti-Christian persecution, where terrorist organisations are increasingly focusing on Christian communities”. He added: “Extremists are trying to stir up inter-religious strife, sectarian conflict.”
Church leaders would be urged to work closely with law enforcement agencies and security services, he said. “Churches are vulnerable places because they are open places. The advice we give is to work closely with the police in the area and also with the local imam. What we want is to build community cohesion.”
Sookhdeo cited as causes for concern the arrest in April of a Muslim man in France who was suspected of planning attacks on churches, and the murder last week of nine black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina, which illustrated the vulnerability of churches.
The Barnabas Fund had planned the conference as “a confidential, closed-door meeting, not to be made public. Now it has become a public issue. It’s not us here creating the problem.”
According to Charlie Winter of the Quilliam Foundation, a counter-extremism thinktank, the conference “could send the wrong message” in exacerbating tensions between Christians and Muslims in the UK. “But this is what Isis has been working towards — making people scared and feeling they are targets.”
Winter added: “I haven’t seen or heard anything to suggest that churches in the UK are being targeted by Isis.”
A spokesman for the Church of England declined to comment before the conference.
The Barnabas Fund was established in 1990 “to send financial support to projects which help Christians where they suffer discrimination, oppression and persecution as a consequence of their faith”, according to its website.
It lists 22 countries in which it is working to help Christians, including Syria, Egypt, Pakistan and Iran. It recently launched Operation Safe Havens “to rescue Christians in danger” in Syria and Iraq by resettling them in Europe, and says the Polish government has accepted 60 families.