Churches must review their security to deter terrorist attacks, the British Home Office has told religious leaders, as it made £2.4 million (US$3.1 million) available to strengthen protective measures in places of worship.
The call follows the latest terrorist attack in France on Tuesday, in which a Catholic priest was reportedly beheaded in front of his congregation in a Normandy suburb by two self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) “soldiers.”
However, calls for armed security personnel outside churches were strongly rejected by religious leaders, who believe the sanctuaries should remain public and accessible venues for all.
“If you start to go to the other extreme of making [churches] fortresses then they start to lose their very purpose,” Father Christopher Jamison, director of the Roman Catholic National Office for Vocation, told BBC Radio 4.
“It’s really important that the church remains a place of sanctuary… The door of mercy must remain open.”
Special advice has been distributed by the police to the 47,000 churches in Britain, urging churchgoers to stay alert. No specific threats are known at this point that could affect British Christian communities.
“As we have seen, Daesh [Arabic pejorative term for IS] and other terrorist groups have targeted Christian as well as Jewish and other faith groups in the west and beyond,” London Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) Deputy Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu said.
“Following recent events in France, we are reiterating our protective security advice to Christian places of worship and have circulated specific advice today. We are also taking this opportunity to remind them to review their security arrangements as a precaution.
“While the threat from terrorism remains unchanged at ‘severe’, we urge the public to be vigilant. Be alert and not alarmed and report any suspicious activity. The UK police service is working tirelessly with our partners to confront the threat and protect all our communities.”
Religious sites of all creeds will be able to apply for a share of the £2.4 million protection pot made available by the Home Office. The money could be used to purchase security technology such as CCTV and alarms, as well as bollards, locks and stronger doors.
Security services MI6, MI5 and GCHQ have warned a terrorist attack on British soil is now “highly likely.”
GCHQ legal advisor James Eadie QC told the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT) that while there has been no abuse of powers by the security services, the “threat level currently stands at severe, which means that an attack in the UK is highly likely.”
Eadie was in court to fend off accusations by privacy and civil rights groups that British security services have been unlawfully using section 94 of the Telecommunications Act 1984 to spy on and collect British citizens’ personal data.
At the start of the four day hearing on Wednesday, Thomas de la Mare QC, representing the charity Privacy International, said there is no “red flag system” to control and prevent the “aggressive use” of section 94.