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Amid rising attacks on places of worship, how religious leaders are responding

The deadly California synagogue shooting is the latest in a series of attacks that raise profound questions about keeping sacred spaces safe. Judy Woodruff talks to the Islamic Center of Greater Cincinnati's Shakila Ahmad, Rabbi Devorah Marcus from Temple Emanu-El of San Diego, Ted Elmore of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention and Bishop Eugene Sutton of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The shooting at a synagogue in California over the weekend is just the latest in a series of attacks at houses of worship here and abroad.

    These assaults have increased in recent years, and are often tied to racism, bigotry and outright hate crimes. Like school shootings, these incidents are raising profound questions about how to protect sacred spaces.

  • Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein:

    This is our response, a full shul packed.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    A rabbi's words of healing in the same synagogue where, two days earlier, gunshots rang out. The attack weighed heavy on the congregation's mind at a memorial service last night for Lori Kaye, the woman who died.

  • Sam Hoffman:

    We're at ground zero, the very place where an anti-Semitic terrorist came to tear us down.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Attacks at houses of worship are not limited to or focused on just one religion. Bombings at churches and hotels in Sri Lanka on Easter left more than 250 people dead. A month before that, a gunman slaughtered 50 people at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.

  • Jacinda Ardern:

    There is no place in New Zealand for such acts of extreme and unprecedented violence.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Tragically, these are the latest in a spate of assaults that have increased in recent years. In October, 11 people were gunned down by a white supremacist in a Pittsburgh synagogue; 25 people died in a shooting at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, in 2017.

    In 2012, a gunman killed six at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, rattling faith leaders nationally.

  • Rajwant Singh:

    We have always had this, you know, fear that there is — some incident might happen, but we didn't expect that this would be at this scale.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Black churches in the U.S. have been frequent targets of racist attacks historically, particularly during the Jim Crow and civil rights eras. That included the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Four African-American girls were killed during church services.

    In 2015, a white supremacist murdered nine parishioners at a historically black church in Charleston, South Carolina. Just a few weeks ago, three churches were set on fire in a single Louisiana parish in separate incidents.

    And we should note that the governor of Wisconsin visited that Sikh temple today as part of a special appreciation.

    This all comes amid a rise in hate crimes.

    Let's look at a range of voices about the targeting of religious sanctuaries. Ours is just a small sampling of leaders of faith around the country.

    Shakila Ahmad, the first female president of the Islamic Center of Greater Cincinnati, she is a founding member of the Muslim-Jewish Advisory Council. It's a national group of business, political and religious leaders. Rabbi Devorah Marcus is with Temple Emanu-El in San Diego, not far from the attack in Poway earlier this week. Ted Elmore is a pastor with the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention. And Bishop Eugene Sutton is the head of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland.

    And we welcome all of you to the "NewsHour," and unfortunately under these circumstances. Some of us, I think, can hardly belief that we're even having this conversation. So, we really appreciate your joining us.

    I want to ask each one of you how all this is affecting you and your congregation.

    And I want the start with you, Rabbi Marcus, because you are located not far from where the attack took place just a few days ago.

  • Rabbi Devorah Marcus:

    Thank you.

    Obviously, the events of Saturday have had a profound impact on the entire Jewish community globally and especially in San Diego. Our Jewish community in San Diego is a close-knit one. I can't think of a single congregation where someone in the congregation didn't know Lori Kaye, because of her profound involvement in acts of tikkun olam. That's the Jewish expression for repairing the world.

    She was a very active member of our Jewish community, really a tremendous representative of what makes our community wonderful and everything that we take pride in.

    So our congregants are both personally affected by the loss of a dear friend and are communally affected, because our synagogues, our churches, our mosques, our places of worship, these should be safe space, and right now it does not feel safe at all.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Ted Elmore, Pastor Elmore, what about you and what about your congregation there?

  • Ted Elmore:

    Judy, we look at this with a great deal of sadness.

    In fact, we have prayed for the congregation in California, as well as in Pittsburgh and other places. I myself worked with Sutherland Springs, and there were actually 26 that were slain in that shooting. And it is a profound evil that has come upon us.

    And it is evidence of a broken world and certainly broken lives that perpetrate these crimes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Shakila Ahmad in Cincinnati, of course, the Muslim faith has been affected in its own way. How are you, how is your community reacting right now?

  • Shakila Ahmad:

    You know, I think people are trying to be very strong. There should be really focusing on, you know, spiritually getting ready for the month of Ramadan, which begins next week.

    But the horrific incidents that have taken place in San Diego, in Sri Lanka, obviously Christchurch, New Zealand, have, you know, really been heavy on people's hearts.

    At the same time, we really have had to step back and reassess as to how it is that we can provide a safe community, and then how it is that we can, you know, be in prayer and in spirit with others who are hurting because of this profound and deep hatred, which is being manifested in outright acts of violence against innocent people.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And I want to talk to all of you in just a moment about how you're responding to it.

    But, Bishop Sutton, what about you? And it is — I mean, we are reminded that, even when these incidents happens far away, thousands of miles, not even in this country, we still feel them.

  • Bishop Eugene Sutton:


    And the largest city in my diocese, the Diocese of Maryland, is Baltimore. Baltimore, Maryland, is no stranger to violence. And, unfortunately, we have witnessed violence in our churches for some time, even had the shooting of a priest and a church secretary by a shooter.

    So we do respond with prayers and an outpouring of compassion to all our brothers and sisters, our Jewish brothers and sisters, our Muslim brothers and sisters. But one thing we will not do is stop with prayers just from our mouths.

    We believe that God is also calling us to act. And our actions are, how can we prevent this and how can we be a more — an even more effective witness for peace and justice to avoid these kinds of incidents?

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, let's talk about some of that.

    Rabbi Marcus, what steps are you taking at your synagogue in Southern California? Are you actively taking steps to secure, to make it a safer place?

  • Devorah Marcus:

    Yes, we have worked for years to make our congregation as safe as possible, with the recognition that, when evil people seek to do harm, they often will figure out a way.

    So, for us in the Jewish community, this profound rise of anti-Semitism that we have witnessed, because it has been a profound rise, has been going on for several years now.

    And before that, there was always — there was always fear. There had been attacks at Jewish community centers and at synagogues, anti-Semitic incidents, throughout the centuries. Typically and historically, America has been a safe place.

    But especially in the last few years, as we have seen this profound uptick in anti-Semitic incidents nationally and internationally, we have worked very proactively. We have a robust security committee that works with our local law enforcement and FBI office to ensure that we are creating as comprehensive a security plan as possible to be as proactive as possible.

    We don't want to wait until something bad happens. We want to prevent something bad from happening, if we can.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Ted Elmore, what about in your community in Texas? I mean, are you going so far as to make sure there are armed guards around the church?

  • Ted Elmore:

    That is a local church decision.

    But many local churches do have armed guards. Now, the church where I pastor, First Baptist, Franklin, Texas, we do have a security team that is made up of ex-law enforcement. Some are now law enforcement. And so our security begins on the parking lot.

    We have cameras, we have monitors, and our men walk around. Doors are locked after, for example — in Baptist life, we have Sunday school, so we always have security in the children's area. But when a certain room is used, and that segment of the building is used, we lock those doors. So we watch for the strange and for the unknown.

    I have just written a piece called "Instant Preparation and Recovery" we sent 2,600 churches that helps them to make prayer as a first response and seeking the protection of God, but yet being prudent and wise in looking at how we can safely prepare, in case one of these events were to occur.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Shakila Ahmad, what about in Cincinnati at the mosques you are involved with?

    I mean, what sort of security precautions have you had to take?

  • Shakila Ahmad:

    Well, I think sadly, even though we were always very cognizant, we have really had to step up a number of ways to secure and help people feel comfortable when they come in to really connect with their creator.

    And so one thing we have had to do is really increase, actually hiring off-duty police officers in order to be on site with police cruisers. We have had to beef up the security team, as one of my other colleagues mentioned, and provide them training in order to be vigilant and to be able to be eyes and ears when people, our other 1,000 people are focused on their worship.

    We have enhanced our cameras across the campus, put in a perimeter fence. But I will tell you is that we are constantly seeking ways in order to be able to — whether it's potential security grants or collaboration with the Jewish community and our other faith leaders, to know how it is that we can really allow people to come to these holy places of worship and be safe and feel secure.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Bishop Sutton, what about you? What about in Baltimore, in Maryland? How are churches staying safe?

  • Eugene Sutton:

    Well, our churches are going to take all reasonable precautions and safety measures, as reasonable and as spiritually helpful.

    Here's what I mean. We're not going to become armed camps. We're not going to be fortresses. We're not going to meet violence with violence. This is something that goes to the core of our faith.

    In this nation of ours, one of the things that — sadly, that we export is our values of being wedded to violence and our attachments to guns and bombs and implements of violence as a way to stop violence.

    We have to end that cycle. The one that we hold to in our faith is Jesus of Nazareth. And he eschewed violence, and he did with his followers as well.

    Martin Luther King took up those ethics of his, and also such people as Gandhi and the Dalai Lama. And in each of those cases, they have really shown that it is nonviolence and nonviolent responses that are most helpful in the long run.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Rabbi Marcus, this message of not resorting to guns, to tools violence, weapons of violence, even to — in self-defense, is, I'm sure a conversation you had in your own community.

    How did you resolve that?

  • Devorah Marcus:

    We had a long conversation amongst our leadership about whether or not to move to a level of security that includes now armed guards.

    In the end, we made that choice to move to armed guards, for a number of different reasons. One, as was demonstrated at Chabad, first of all, it decreases the appearance of being a soft target. And people who come in to do these attacks often flee immediately when they are confronted with other people who are armed and trained.

    So we didn't do this because we glorify violence or we celebrate guns. We're very much not in favor of a violent culture. We made the transition to switch to armed guards because we felt that it was the best way to keep everyone in our community safe.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And in just the few minutes we have left, I want to ask Ted Elmore about this.

  • Ted Elmore:

    Well, I do agree with the bishop that we worship Jesus of Nazareth.

    But I also agree with rabbi. It is my responsibility and our responsibility, as leaders in the faith community, to protect our flock from the wolves. And there's no greater wolf than an assassin.

    And so we take prudent measures to protect our children, to protect our elderly, praying every moment that those measures of neutralizing a shooter never have to happen.

    But when you have looked into the faces of people who have lost 26, 26, almost half of the room that particular day, and you hug them and you walk with them for a year, you realize that we have to take appropriate measures.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You want to comment?

  • Eugene Sutton:

    Especially for my brothers and sisters in the Jewish faith and the Muslim faith, yes, armed guards, I understand that, not armed worshipers.

    We can't have our places of sacred holy spaces be armed camps. That goes against everything that our values are about, because we firmly believe, that is, when we put our trust in God, that is best in the long run. And, again, that's the genius of the civil rights movement as well.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, and I know this is something every congregation is wrestling with on its own.

    Finally, Shakila Ahmad, the Muslim center — Islamic Center of Cincinnati, how did you come down on this question?

  • Shakila Ahmad:

    Well, as I said, I think our vehicle has been to really leverage people who are experienced and have the ability to act and act very quickly.

    And that is not a burden that a congregation should have to bear. So, for that reason, I think the off-duty police officers, even though it's an incredible added expense on our community, as well as hiring of appropriate security individuals, and then training our worshipers to be eyes and ears, but not be the one that have the burden of carrying firearms.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Such a difficult conversation. Thank you all for joining us.

    Shakila Ahmad, Rabbi Devorah Marcus, Ted Elmore, and Bishop Eugene Sutton, thank you.

  • Ted Elmore:

    Thank you.

  • Devorah Marcus:

    Thank you for the opportunity to speak.

  • Shakila Ahmad:

    Thank you very much.

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