Christian charity Barnabas Fund, a nonprofit organization based in the United Kingdom, has planned to host a training session in London to advise churches on how to protect themselves against attacks from terror groups such as ISIS. The charity mainly provides assistance to Christians in majority Muslim countries.
According to a report by Harriet Sherwood of the Guardian, the Barnabas Fund has invited more than 50 church leaders in the United Kingdom to participate in the half-day session at Westminster's Central Hall conducted by Patrick Sookhdeo, the charity's international director, alongside representatives from the police. The charity claimed its mission was to offer "practical aid for the persecuted church."
"Given the dramatic growth of [ISIS] in the Middle East and the increased anti-Christian rhetoric and attacks from that group, plus the recently thwarted attempts to attack churches in Paris, the possibility of an ISIS attack on British churches cannot be discounted," a leaked email obtained by the Guardian warned.
Sherwood reported that the leaked email had the subject line "Protecting British churches from terrorist attack." It elaborated on the topics that would be covered by the charity.
"The meeting will consider critical vulnerabilities and how these can best be mitigated," the email said. "It will include practical advice for realistic measures that local church leadership can adopt to protect their congregations and buildings without causing undue alarm or hindering a congregation's ministry and outreach."
Sookhdeo, who has previously advised the British government's Ministry of Defense on Islam, told the Guardian that "growing anti-Christian persecution" was the main reason why the Barnabas Fund was holding the conference.
"Terrorist organizations are increasingly focusing on Christian communities," Sookhdeo said. "Extremists are trying to stir up inter-religious strife, sectarian conflict."
Sookhdeo added that church leaders should work closely with law enforcement agencies, security services, and even other Muslims, given how most churches normally operate.
"Churches are vulnerable places because they are open places," Sookhdeo said. "The advice we give is to work closely with the police in the area and also with the local imam. What we want is to build community cohesion."
According to Tim Wyatt of Church Times, two academics who have studied Islamic terrorism thought the charity's event was an overreaction. They claimed British churches did not face any threat from ISIS or any other terror groups.
"The idea is bunk. It is nonsensical and ridiculous," Fawaz Gerges, Professor of International Relations at the London School of Economics, said. "The idea does not make sense to me. It is not a priority for [ISIS] or al-Qaida."
The director of the University of Buckingham's Centre for Security and Intelligence Studies, Anthony Glees, agreed with Gerges. He thought that "no intelligence" currently exists of any ISIS plans to attack British churches.
"It is possible to believe that there may be an intention on the part of [ISIS] supporters to attack Christian churches, but to the best of my knowledge there is no evidence that they have the capability to do so," Glees said. "In that sense, I would say that this is almost certainly an over-reaction to the situation."
Gerges contended that the conference held by the Barnabas Fund was playing into ISIS strategy in the sense of providing the terror group a "moral boost."
"It tells them 'We are terrorizing our enemies,'" Gerges said. "You're playing into the hands of the radicals who say 'We are a fifth column in your society.' It's not true at all."
Charlie Winter of the counter-extremism think-tank Quilliam Foundation also told the Guardian that the conference could heighten tension in the UK between Christians and Muslims, stating that it "could send the wrong message."
"This is what ISIS has been working towards - making people scared and feeling they are targets," Winter said. "I haven't seen or heard anything to suggest that churches in the UK are being targeted by ISIS."
A spokesman for the Barnabas Fund told Church Times that the charity will delay commenting on the matter until after the conference is completed. However, he indicated that the public will know of the initiative by November of this year.
"This is a private meeting and we have some security concerns," he said.