Protecting Europe’s places of worship: Collaborative approaches against extremism Raquel Albuquerque September 22, 2023

Protecting Europe’s places of worship: Collaborative approaches against extremism

In a time where religious sites have increasingly become targets of extremism, a transnational expert partnership is working to provide insights into the landscape of threats and cooperative protective measures that can be implemented across Europe.

The struggle against extremism presents a complex challenge that goes beyond a crisis of social cohesion, but of public security itself. Violent extremism has been casting its shadow even over places of worship, that should stand as sanctuaries of peace and community.

As Europe grapples with these threats, the need for comprehensive strategies that address both the symptoms and the underlying causes of hate crimes has never been more pressing.

The PARTES project has delved deep into the realities of this threat, analysing 30 case studies of violent attacks, hate crimes, and cyber-attacks on religious sites across 13 European countries. The findings are a clarion call for action, shedding light on the nature of these attacks, the ideologies behind them, and the measures we can take to fortify our places of worship.

The stark reality of threats

The PARTES project reveals important insights from this sample that can contribute to guiding actions to counter these attacks.

The responses to these attacks have been varied. While religious communities have been vocal in their condemnation, calling for increased protection, public authorities’ investigations have frequently ended inconclusively, leaving a cloud of uncertainty and fear.

With 37% of the attacks orchestrated by far-right extremists, this ideology’s influence is particularly insidious, often manifesting through public discourse that fosters hate against religious minorities with a notable emphasis on antisemitic and anti-Muslim rhetoric. This atmosphere of intolerance not only emboldens direct attacks but also perpetuates a culture where hate speech and violence are increasingly normalised.

Far-right and far-left groups exhibit a higher level of organisation compared to others, with individual attackers often radicalised by jihadist and far-right ideologies. While far-right groups primarily focus on Muslim and Jewish places of worship, driven by deep-seated prejudices and conspiracy theories, left-wing groups target religions they perceive as upholding conservative values. 

Attacks by unidentified individuals accounted for 30% of the incidents analysed. This significant figure underscores a critical challenge in identifying the ideology of perpetrators unless they leave a clear message or manifesto.

Unidentified attackers commonly resort to vandalism and symbolic acts of desecration, such as scattering pork pieces around mosques.

Muslim communities, despite comprising only 3-5% of the populations studied, bear a disproportionate brunt of these aggressions, particularly in their efforts to establish mosques.

The cycle of retaliation and hate

Retaliation emerges as a significant driver of attacks on religious sites, creating a vicious cycle of violence. For instance, attacks on a church in Sweden and mosques in Lisbon and Granada were reportedly in retaliation for previous incidents deemed offensive by the attackers, such as the burning of the Quran. These retaliatory attacks not only escalate tensions between religious and ethnic communities but also deepen the divisions, leading to further alienation and potential for conflict.

The PARTES project also points to the role of the media in amplifying polarised views, particularly in cases involving radicalised attackers or those targeting the Muslim community. This polarisation often manifests in a pervasive anti-Muslim narrative, linking Muslims indiscriminately to terrorism.

Online platforms play a significant role in the spread of hate, with cases noted where online hate campaigns were directly linked to physical attacks. The use of social media for the dissemination of xenophobic populist statements, hoaxes, and misinformation amplifies these hateful narratives, reaching a wider audience and potentially radicalising individuals who may carry out attacks.

Towards a solution: best practices and guidelines

This research is further detailed in the PARTES Spotlight 1 report, available on the project’s website.

The research team has also compiled critical evidence-based information on security best practices, including 48 documents on protecting places of worship and 7 guidelines on cooperation between public authorities and religious institutions.

The findings of the PARTES project are more than just numbers and percentages; they are a reflection of the challenges we face in safeguarding our communities against the scourge of extremism. The initiative partners underscore the necessity of not only implementing security measures but also engaging in deeper, more constructive dialogues to tackle the root causes of hatred and extremism.

By fostering collaboration between public and religious authorities, investing in education and awareness, and implementing effective security measures, we can begin to turn the tide against extremism.

Learn more about this project


Participatory Approaches to Protecting Places of Worship

The PARTES project is coordinated by the Austrian Institute for International Affairs (Austria) and partnered by the SCENOR Association (Austria), IPS_Innovative Prison Systems (Portugal), the Euro-Arab Foundation for Higher Studies (Spain), the Associazione Carcere e Territorio (Italy), the Association Les Militant des Savoirs (France), the European Foundation for South Asian Studies (The Netherlands), BLUE LINE (Portugal), the Association of Bukharan Jews (Austria), KEMEA – Center for Security Studies, Ministry of Citizen Protection (Greece), the Violence Prevention Network (Germany), the Foundation “Latvian Evangelical Lutheran Church Diaconia Center” (Latvia), European Strategies Consulting (Romania), the Hellenic Police (Greece), and the Murcia Municipal Police (Spain).

For more information on the project, or to learn how to get involved, please visit its website.

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