David Holt

The news that Canterbury Cathedral is to be protected by armed police comes after a number of terror attacks across Europe which have targeted churches. 

Tuesday, 26th July should have been just another day for Fr Jacques Hamel. The 85-year-old Catholic priest was saying the daily Mass in his small village church when two 19-year-olds entered the building.

Both teenagers had pledged allegiance to Islamic State (IS) and shouted slogans in Arabic as they forced the priest to his knees and slit his throat. Abdel Malik Petitjean had recently been added to a French security watch list, while Adel Kermiche had been released from custody by authorities having twice attempted to enter Syria. Kermiche and Petitjean were shot by police as they exited the church.

The attack was roundly condemned by world leaders, and came just weeks after an IS sympathiser killed 84 people in a truck rampage in Nice during Bastille Day celebrations. However, unlike other terrorist attacks committed by IS in 2016, this atrocity took place in a rural and relatively unknown part of the world. The target was not a major airport, such as Brussels, or even a bustling Orlando nightclub. It was a small village church in Saint Étienne-du-Rouvray, where just two parishioners were saying their prayers, together with two nuns and the elderly priest.

Many have called the brutal murder of Fr Hamel "senseless" and "meaningless". However, the young men who join IS attribute ultimate meaning to their actions. As David Wood, writing on the Premier Christianity blog explains, jihadists recruit young Muslims by saying: "If you get killed while waging jihad, Allah guarantees you’ll go to paradise. So even if you’ve spent years violating basic Islamic teachings, Allah makes you an offer. Die while killing unbelievers and your salvation is assured."

While IS claims that Allah gives them victory, Fr Hamel himself attributed the attack to another power. His final, dying words to his attacker were, "Go away, Satan. Go away, Satan."  

Security measures

British police responded to the attack by urging churches in the UK to be "vigilant", "alert" and to review their security measures. It was later revealed that armed guards will be placed outside Canterbury Cathedral. But speaking before that announcement, the Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, told Premier that security responsibilities lie with the police, army and government, and not the Church.

Dr Sentamu said: "Will we experience the same difficulty? What I would say is, Jesus – even he – wasn’t protected. They arrested him in the middle of the night. He ended up being executed.

"For churches, be aware of the possibility they could face the same difficulty, but we’re following a crucified saviour and our job is to be as loving and sometimes as vulnerable as he was."

His comments were echoed by Dr Gregory Cameron, the Bishop of St Asaph, who pointed out that persecution continues to be the norm for many thousands of Christians across the world.

"Christians working in the Middle East, working in conflict zones, risk their lives every day...and perhaps we in the West have just been very fortunate that it hasn’t been a risk that has entered our consciousness.

"There’s not much one can do  to stop the odd madman suddenly deciding to go wild. That can happen anywhere at any time, so it is about being vigilant and being mindful of what your escape routes might be."

Soft targets

The idea that church leaders might have to now consider ‘escape routes’ during regular services will come as a shock to some, but in the UK the official threat level is "severe", meaning that a terrorist attack is "highly likely". Churches are deemed ‘soft targets’ by the security services as they’re usually unguarded and lack police presence.

This point was brought home with extreme bluntness by Martin Brunt. The Sky News journalist was widely mocked after entering and exiting a rural church in the aftermath of Fr Hamel’s death and saying in his television report that, if he were a terrorist, "I could have killed them all."

Inappropriate broadcasting aside, opinion is divided as to how concerned church leaders should be. On the one hand, churches need to be open to all in order to minister to local communities. On the other hand, the Church must take safety concerns seriously. Jewish organisation Community Security Trust (CST) already places security guards outside the vast majority of synagogues and Jewish schools in the UK. Will the Church be forced to consider taking similar action?   

Here are some of the precautions churches in the UK are considering:

• Installing CCTV and intruder alarms

• Keeping keys to a minimum and logging who has a set

• Giving two members of the welcome team oversight of security so they can keep watch on who enters the building on a Sunday

• Devising a detailed evacuation plan that can be implemented by key people

• Closing part or all of the building at certain times rather than sticking to an open door policy 

The Home Office recently announced a £2.4m security fund for religious buildings. Churches and other places of worship will be able to apply for a share of the money to fund doors, bollards, locks, alarms, floodlights and CCTV. The government is no longer merely recommending that churches increase their own security, they’re providing the finance for that to happen. 

Winning the war

Many Church leaders, including Pope Francis and Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, have emphasised the need for Christians and Muslims to build bridges. Political and religious leaders often say that Islam is not the enemy. This is a point that Christian Conservative MP Kevin Foster echoed when he told Premier we must not let terrorists win by allowing them to divide our communities.

"As Christians we offer a hand of friendship to those who are as appalled by this attack, as we are,’ he said, adding that the attack was ‘shocking’ but that there was a ‘war between extremists and everybody else’ rather than ‘a war between Islam and Christianity".

By attacking a priest, IS has sent a clear message to Christians. We are targets. But Christians will cling, albeit soberly, to Jesus’ words: "Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul" (Matthew 10:28).

Fr Hamel’s dying words, "Go away Satan", remind us that in the words of St Paul, "our struggle is not against flesh and blood" (Ephesians 6:12). There are "powers" and "principalities" that inspire the shocking hatred and violence we witness on our television screens.

Locks, bolts and CCTV may well be wise and necessary precautions, but ultimately the hope Jesus offers us is not merely safety in this short life, but a future and eternal security.