Oct 26, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Attacks rise on houses of worship

Woven Stars of David along the fence at the Tree of Life Synagogue on the 1st Anniversary on October 27, 2019 in Pittsburgh, Penn.
Woven Stars of David hang along the fence at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh on the 1st anniversary of a mass shooting at the synagogue. Photo: Jeff Swensen/Getty Images

Houses of worship — across a variety of faiths, including Jewish synagogues to Buddhist temples, Muslim mosques and Catholic churches — are experiencing high amounts of vandalism, arson and other property damage.

The big picture: 2021 is on track to exceed last year's spike in hate crimes in the U.S., many of them linked to religious bigotry. The number of hate crimes reported in FY 2020 was the highest since 2001, when a wave of Islamophobia followed the 9/11 attacks, according to updated FBI data released yesterday.

By the numbers: The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said last week that it has now recorded 100 acts of hate against Catholic sites in the U.S. since May of 2020.

  • Earlier this summer, Canada saw more than a dozen arson attacks on churches, following the discovery of mass graves near Catholic-run residential schools that had housed indigenous children.

Politics and news events across the world are driving hate incidents.

  • New York City experienced almost as many antisemitic hate crimes during a three-week period in May than in the whole first quarter of the year, said Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at Cal State San Bernardino.
  • That spike in violence coincided with heightened tensions between Israel and Palestine.
  • Earlier, historically African American churches experienced property damage in retaliation for Black Lives Matter protests, and a Buddhist temple in Los Angeles was set on fire as a result of anti-Asian hate.

It's not just property damage: Wednesday marks the third anniversary of one of Pennsylvania's worst mass shootings, in which a white supremacist terrorist killed 11 worshippers at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.

  • A mass shooting at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, in 2012 killed six people and injured four more.
  • The Sikh Coalition subsequently created a safety toolkit to help houses of worship and local communities take advantage of help from local law enforcement.
  • “We’ve helped over 80 gurdwaras get a better sense of security,” said Sim J. Singh Attariwala, the senior policy and advocacy manager at The Sikh Coalition.

What's next: Attariwala said the anti-Asian hate crimes law that President Biden signed earlier this year is a start — but that the coalition wants “local and state and federal officials to use their convening power to organize community forums and create task forces that prevent hate violence.”

  • Attorney General Merrick Garland said Monday at a Civil Rights Division’s virtual conference that the Justice Department has charged more than 17 people with federal hate crimes and has secured several convictions or guilty pleas.
  • He said DOJ's Civil Rights Division is also expediting its review of federal hate crimes.

The bottom line: “The communal institutions which hold us together traditionally — academia, arms of government, the media, the medical establishment, and now religious institutions — are held in low esteem relative to decades prior," Levin said.

  • "So when there are disputes or questions about authority, and particularly when you have these new conspiracy theories that come up like QAnon, there's always a place for someone of faith to be scapegoated. We're extremely concerned.”

Go deeper: 🎧 Listen to an interview with Brian Levin on "Axios Today."

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to show that Attorney General Merrick Garland spoke at a Civil Rights Division’s virtual conference, not during congressional testimony.

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