Synagogues, mosques and other faith-based organizations are getting some help from the U.S. government as they confront a spike in hate crimes in the aftermath of the October 7 Hamas terror attack on Israel.
The Homeland Security Department issued a new guide Wednesday to help religious organizations implement cost-effective strategies to improve the security of their buildings and facilities, and to help keep their congregations safe.
"I wish we were all convening to have a multifaith celebration of the upcoming holidays, but we are gathered together on a more somber and sobering note,” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told faith-based organizations and community leaders during a video call.
“We are in a heightened threat environment in our country," he said, adding, “There is no such thing as a small act of hate.”
The Department of Homeland Security is not alone in its concern.
Hate crimes have been on the rise for some time, according to data tracked by the FBI, but the bureau’s director told lawmakers Wednesday that the number of cases has spiked by about 60% since October, with the vast majority of the threats targeting the U.S. Jewish community.
There also have been high-profile attacks against Muslims and those of Arab or Palestinian descent, including the fatal stabbing of a 6-year-old Palestinian American boy outside Chicago in October and the shooting of three Palestinian college students in Burlington, Vermont, late last month.
“The fear so many communities are facing is palpable,” U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland told faith-based leaders taking part in the call hosted by DHS.
“Your communities are looking to you for guidance and protection at this difficult time. That is not an easy burden to shoulder,” he said. “We are working every day to make sure that you do not have to shoulder it alone."
The new DHS guide seeks to help faith-based organizations think about how to make sure they take steps to eliminate practices that could put their members at risk from an attack.
Recommendations range from forming a security and safety planning team to assess risks, to improving lighting or installing security systems to monitor buildings.
It also urges faith-based organizations to create a response plan in case of an emergency and to do security exercises so that congregants are familiar with what to do in case of an attack.
At the same time, DHS officials say they are focused on additional outreach to help make sure faith-based organizations have the resources they need.
“We are engaging with communities, multifaith communities across the country,” Mayorkas said. “We have really increased the tempo in which we share intelligence and analysis with our private and public sector partners across the country."
Homeland Security and law enforcement officials warn the greatest danger, for now, remains lone offenders or small groups who are angered by current events and may take inspiration from any number of extremist groups.
They also warn, though, that the number of extremist groups calling for attacks on the U.S. in the aftermath of the October 7 terror attack on Israel is growing, and that they continue to be wary that one of those groups could try to direct an attack.
“I see blinking lights everywhere I turn," FBI Director Christopher Wray told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee when asked about the threat level in the U.S. during an appearance Tuesday.
"I've never seen a time where all the threats, or so many of the threats, are all elevated, all at exactly the same time,” he said.