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Hassan leads talk on keeping houses of worship safe

August 27, 2019

MANCHESTER, N.H. (AP) — New Hampshire’s faith leaders said Tuesday they are working with law enforcement to keep their congregations safe but need more resources as they try to strike a delicate balance between openness and security.

Leaders of Islamic, Christian and Jewish faith communities joined law enforcement Tuesday for a discussion led by U.S. Sen. Maggie Hassan. They described hiring security guards and locking their doors in the wake of deadly shootings at houses of worship in other states and overseas, and wrestling with difficult conversations about bringing guns into houses of worship.

At Temple Beth Jacob of Concord, volunteers monitor video footage of entrances for suspicious activity before and after services, said Rabbi Robin Nafshi.

“I’ll be honest, that half hour period — the 15 minutes before services and the 15 minutes after when I know the door is unlocked and I’ve got a wonderful board member sitting and staring at that tablet? There has been many a Friday night that I have thought to myself, ‘Is tonight the night we die?’” she said. “It scares me and yet I know we cannot afford police presence at our services.”

Nafshi’s synagogue was not one of the seven New Hampshire houses of worship that recently were awarded $150,000 in federal grants to improve security, despite the fact that she has been targeted by a white supremacist who has posted her photo online with a “Despicable Jew of the Day” caption. Hassan, who also helped secure $4 million for general terrorism protection and preparedness statewide, said she is working to make the grant program for individual organizations permanent and increase funding.

“We need to make sure that everybody in New Hampshire and all Americans can feel safe when they go to their place of worship,” she said. “In New Hampshire, we come together, we ask questions of each other, we get to know each other, we roll up our sleeves and solve problems together.”

Michael Gibeley, a senior supervisory agent with the FBI, echoed that, saying his office collaborates closely with religious organizations to investigate threats. But he also emphasized that many incidents amount to free speech protected by the Constitution and aren’t crimes.

Religious leaders across the country have been grappling with how to respond to gun violence spreading to places of worship after shootings in churches in Texas and South Carolina, a synagogue in Pittsburgh and a mosque in New Zealand.

Sheraz Rashid of the Islamic Society of New Hampshire, described the mood of his mosque as people arrived for prayers just hours after the New Zealand shooting in March.

“We had folks from around the world that for the first time maybe in their life, they feared coming to the mosque to worship,” he said. “A place in which we as a community ... instill a sense of safety and security.”

Rev. Jason Wells, director of the New Hampshire Council of Churches, said the 350 congregations covering nine denominations in his organization have struggled with balancing the time and resources put toward security with other priorities, as well as their larger commitments to be places of peacefulness. He is calling on Christian congregations to look within and stand together against antisemitism and islamophobia.

“If we say hate has no home here, we can’t remain silent when it is truly not just in our home but in our house of worship,” he said. “What would it look like if we truly rallied, not only in a moment of crisis, but if we truly came together repeatedly to show we are the community of inclusion that we say we are, so the phrase ‘hate has no home here’ takes real root.”

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