Why jihadists attack churches – and will continue to do so – while UK police advise church leaders to review their security


Police in rural south-west England emailed local church leaders in their region on Tuesday (2 August) advising them “to review their security plans and encourage their members to be vigilant” in the light of the murder of French priest Father Jacques Hamel. The letter also gave information on where further advice and guidance on personal security and security for places of worship could be obtained, as well as how to apply for government funding for security measures for places of worship.  Eighteen months ago Barnabas Fund organised a conference to provide guidance to churches as to how they could improve their security, without causing alarm or hampering their outreach. Then at the beginning of this year we published Pray and Protect, a 82-page booklet giving practical guidance on how churches in the West could do just that. Last week, following the attack on a French church, we took the decision to make that booklet freely available for churches to download from our website.

Why do we say this? Because 18 months ago when we held that conference we were dismissed as scaremongering. In fact, two leading academics specialising in security issues told the Church Times that the idea that Islamic State (IS) were planning to attack churches in the West was “bunk” and that there was “no intelligence” suggesting this.

Now, following last week’s brutal attack that saw Father Jacques Hamel murdered at the altar of his church, a number of agencies are making a rapid reassessment of the vulnerability of churches in the West.

In reality, of course, what happened last week was simply an extension into Europe of what has been happening to Christians in the Middle East for more than a decade. There the current wave of attacks on churches began with the bombing of an Iraqi church in 2004 and by 2014 at least 118 churches had been destroyed.

Church in Raqqa, Syria, where IS fighters replaced the
cross and bell with a jihadist flag
Church in Raqqa, Syria, where IS fighters replaced the cross and bell with a jihadist flag

In parallel with this a series of targeted assassinations of Christian leaders began in August 2006 – almost exactly ten years ago. For example, in October 2010 jihadists linked to Al Qaeda in Iraq – the forerunner of Islamic State – attacked a Baghdad church in a similar manner to last week’s attack in France. They first killed the priest where he stood at the altar, shouted at the congregation “You are all infidels” and “We will go to paradise if we kill you and you will go to hell” before killing 57 other worshippers. Meanwhile, as this spate of church attacks and targeted killings of clergy continued, radical Islamic clerics issued fatwas (Islamic legal rulings) threatening Iraqi Christians with death unless they converted to Islam.

If anyone were still in any doubt as to the intentions of jihadists towards churches, a few days after the French attack IS published the latest edition of their English-language magazine Dabiq. In the past this has focused on condemning other Islamist groups for not being radical enough. However, the latest edition not only focuses on Christians but holds up the murder of Father Hamel as an example to be emulated. The title of this edition “Break the cross” is eschatological and points to Islamic belief as to what will happen in the End Times. This involves a great End Time battle at Dabiq in Syria in which Islamic armies will conquer “Rome” i.e. the “Christian” West, ushering in the End Times. This will be followed by Jesus returning to earth, killing pigs, abolishing jizya – as all Christians will then have become Muslims – and smashing the symbol of the cross – hence the title of IS’ current magazine. None of this is unique to IS’s ideology but rather is part of classical Islam, with a specific hadith pointing to this End Time battle at Dabiq.

This latest edition of their magazine also encourages potential jihadists not to travel to Iraq/Syria but to carry out attacks in their own countries and makes clear that IS will not stop its jihad until the West accepts one of three options: 1. Conversion to Islam 2. Acceptance of dhimmi (inferior, subjugated non-citizen) status symbolised by payment of jizya or 3. Death. These are of course exactly the same options that IS gave Christians in the areas of Iraq/Syria it has conquered.

Again, these are exactly the “options” for Christians spelled out in the sharia textbooks of classical Islam and are derived directly from verses in the Quran such as Q9:29, which runs:

“Fight those who believe not in God nor the Last Day, nor hold that forbidden which has been forbidden by God and His Apostle, nor acknowledge the religion of truth, of the People of the Book, until they pay the Jizyah with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued.”

In other words virtually everything that jihadi groups such as IS are doing is driven by theology. This is why Christians in the Middle East have been subjected to each of these three in various degrees for many centuries. What happened in France last week is simply a re-enactment of what has been happening in the Middle East not just for the last decade but for the last several centuries.

In response to last week’s attack in France, Western church leaders have rightly sought to protect ordinary Muslims from vigilante attacks and stressed the need for tolerance. However, some have persisted in a naïve refusal  to accept any link between Islam and violence.

Our response needs to be to pray, to take precautions to protect ourselves and to recognise that this is something that our Christian brothers and sisters elsewhere in the world have been experiencing for some time. As the Apostle Peter wrote to Christians in broadly similar circumstances: “Be alert and of sober mind . . . standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings.” (1 Peter 5:8-9).

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