It is an evil thing to attack people when they are at worship. Canadians were appalled last January when six Muslim men were shot as they were finishing evening prayers in Quebec City. These men were targeted because of their Muslim faith. But it is shocking that anyone be murdered as they gather to worship. Mosques, temples, gurdwaras, synagogues and churches are built as gathering places where believers can be free to worship God together with others who share their faith. It is sacred space.
In Canada, we often think of Christmas as a time of gift giving and holiday parties. But Christmas remains one of the most holy times of year for Christians. As the recent horrific bombing at Bethel Memorial Methodist Church in Quetta, Pakistan shows, church services at this time of year can be a special target for violence against Christians in the many regions of the world where they are a minority.
Last year, 25 worshippers were killed when St. Mark’s Church in Cairo, Egypt was bombed a couple of weeks before Christmas. And this year suicide bombers killed nine worshippers at a church in Pakistan. In 2011, a string of church bombings was carried out in five cities in Nigeria killing 41. In 2000, a series of church bombings in Indonesia killed 18 Christians.
An attack on a house of worship is an attack on a religious community. It harms that community not just in the moment but also in the future by making worshipers fearful of coming together. Religion, be it Christianity, Judaism or Islam, is often practiced as a community. What had been a sanctuary for the faith community becomes a place of fear.
There is a certain dark irony in Christmas being a time when churches are bombed. The Christmas story has angels declaring “Peace on Earth.” Yet for minority Christian communities in Pakistan and elsewhere, this season has brought anything but peace.
As a diverse, multi-faith country, Canada should take the lead in prosecuting attacks on houses of worship at home, and denouncing them abroad. Earlier this year, the House of Commons Justice Committee voted to retain special protection for religious services in the Criminal Code, while the Heritage Committee worked on an action plan to combat racial and religious discrimination. These are important first steps to preventing and responding to attacks on religious worshipers in Canada.
But our response to international incidents is also important. Global Affairs Canada’s Office of Human Rights, Freedom, and Inclusion is responsible for addressing religious freedom. This office can make a difference by condemning attacks on houses of worship, and expressing support for religious minorities who suffer from violence.