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Why religious sanctuaries have become sites of unholy violence

Updated 9:00 AM ET, Sun March 17, 2019

(CNN) - A Sikh temple in Wisconsin. An Islamic center in Quebec. Mother Emmanuel AME Church in South Carolina. The Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.

On Friday, two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, were added to the sad litany of sanctuaries desecrated by unholy violence.

In each case, the houses of worships were attacked by white supremacists, according to law enforcement officials.

In each case, a religious community has been left grieving, pondering its future and feeling unsettled in sites that were supposed to be sanctuaries.

Forty-one people were killed at the al Noor mosque in Christchurch, according to authorities. Seven more died at the Linwood mosque, and one person died from their injuries at a hospital.

In a social media post just before the attacks, an account that is believed to belong to one of the attackers had a link to an 87-page manifesto that was filled with anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim ideas and explanations for an attack. The manifesto was not signed.

In the manifesto, a 28-year-old suspect identifies himself as a white man, born in Australia, and lists the white nationalists who have inspired him.

Friday's attacks horrified Muslims and others across the world, even as many said that it was, sadly, predictable, given the rise in violence against religious minorities, including not only Muslims but Jews and members of other faiths.

While many attacks on churches in the United States are not actually related to religion, according to experts, assaults on non-Christian sites often seem to have religious hatred at their core.

Hate crimes in the United States alone rose 17% in 2017, the latest year for which data is available, according to the FBI. That includes not only attacks on religious individuals but also on their holy sites. In 2017, nine mosques reportedly were attacked each month on average.

It seems almost sacrilegious to call houses of worship "soft targets." They are designed to be open and welcoming to strangers, congregations of common people, unarmed and unafraid before each other and before their God.

For many religions, that's not just a policy; it's an article of faith. That's why the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh kept its doors open despite fearing the rising tide of anti-Semitism in the United States and throughout the world.

Hours before that shooting in October, the suspect posted online that HIAS, a Jewish refugee resettlement agency, "likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can't sit by and watch my people get slaughtered."

As that comment suggests, these attacks on sacred sites are about more than religion. They are about defining and eliminating the "other" -- not only the people who pray to different gods, but also those who live and speak and dress differently than the white, Christian mainstream.

But there is something uniquely disturbing about violence in sanctuaries, and it relates to the dual meaning of that word. Because sanctuaries -- temples and mosques and churches -- are not just consecrated buildings. They are sacred in another sense as well.

Temples and mosques and churches are sites of refuge from the world, places where the soul can seek safety, havens free from hatred. When believers bow their heads in prayer they make themselves, intentionally, vulnerable. Their thoughts are tuned to the eternal, not clear and present dangers.

If, after these relentless attacks, houses of worship become surrounded by barbed wire and policed by armed guards, that sense of sanctuary will have been lost, and may never be regained.

But perhaps the greater fear is that terrorists and white supremacists know this about sanctuaries, too. That's why they attack them.

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