New EU guidance on protection of places of worship: a first step in the right direction

The Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Union (COMECE) welcomes the adoption by the European Commission of the Quick Guide to support the protection of places of worship. COMECE: “It is a good first step. The Catholic Church is ready to further contribute to its enrichment and improvement”.

Police officers stand guard near Notre Dame church in Nice, southern France, after an attacker armed with a knife killed at least three people at the church, Oct. 29, 2020. (Credit: Eric Gaillard/Pool via AP)

The European Commission has finalised a new Quick Guide to support the protection of places of worship. The text is part of the EU Counter-Terrorism Agenda and aims to support small/medium sized places of worship in the EU with basic steps to assess vulnerability and improve awareness and security preparation without altering the sacred nature of such places.

COMECE contributed to the elaboration of the text in the context of the EU Operators’ Forum on the protection of public spaces. COMECE welcomes the idea of a non-binding document based on a detailed set of questions to help assess risks and need for protective measures. COMECE is pleased to promote this important document among its member Bishops’ Conferences.
While highly appreciating the Commission’s involvement on a matter that directly touches upon the daily life of the Church, COMECE would have appreciated a more explicit integration of certain elements suggested in its contribution.

The EU guide emphasizes the link between the symbolic character of places of worship and the need to protect them. “However – states COMECE – this is an incomplete picture: the protection of places of worship should mainly be ensured due to the fact that these places are one of the physical contexts where, primarily, people exercise their fundamental right to freedom of religion, especially in its community dimension”.

According to COMECE, some of the terminology used in the final EC document is also questionable – e.g. the secular reference to “seasonal events” instead of “religious festivals” or “key religious celebrations”. Furthermore, the implementation of the EU Guide should ensure a balanced combination between security and the crucial element of maximum fruition, as the elements of ‘welcome’ and ‘openness’ are essential for the functioning of churches and other worship places.

The Commission’s idea of a living document to be regularly updated in consultation with Churches and religious communities is positive and COMECE is ready to further contribute to its enrichment and improvement.

On protection of places of worship, COMECE is also delighted that the Consortium ProSPeReS(Protection System for large gatherings of People in Religious Sites) was selected for access to EU funding. The project is also the fruit of COMECE exchanges with its member Bishops’ Conferences in the context of its Legal Affairs Commission. COMECE was involved in the elaboration of this project and will be integrated in the relevant activities.

Through a cooperation between scientists, security experts, public services (police and firefighters) and Churches and religious communities, the 2-years Consortium ProSPeReS project will prepare an integrated protection system to increase the safety and security of religious sites in EU Member States. Actors will share good practices and gather insights on needs and requirements, with recommendations and training/awareness materials. Activities should also lead to the creation of a permanent network.