In Religious Attacks, Terrorists Violate Sacred Spaces

Religiously-inspired violence and violence against religious individuals have impacted human conflict since the dawn of religion itself. Unfortunately, some areas of the globe have recently seen an increase in these attacks.

For example, militants belonging to the branch of the Islamic State (IS) active in Pakistan have now taken responsibility for an explosion at a Sufi shrine in the city of Sehwan in the southern province of Sindh on February 16. The attack killed 88 people and wounded more than 250. Writing for the Caravel, Shilpa Rao also has coverage of the attack. The shrine holds special meaning as a place of worship for Sufism, a branch of Islam. At the time of the attack, hundreds had gathered in congregation to partake in a traditional ritual.

Violence surrounding religion often incorporates this locational dimension. The targeted space—in this case a shrine—can serve as a means of symbolically representing an assault on a particular faith or group.

Similarly, in December 2016, IS attackers detonated a bomb in Cairo at Saint Peter and Saint Paul Coptic Orthodox Church. The chapel stands next to Saint Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral, the seat of the Orthodox Christian faith in Egypt. Christians constitute a minority in the country, and IS has repeatedly demonstrated its hostility and hatred towards the group. The explosion killed at least 25 and wounded 49 according to reports— along with the physical damage to the church itself.

Terrorists who target religious sites use violence to incite fear and spread an ideological message. After attacks on religious spaces, believers may wonder if there exist places that can possibly provide safety. Though in many regions the threat of terrorism may permeate daily public life, the intrusion of terrorism into sacred spaces violates a deep religious connection and raises the damage to a more intense, complicated level. Not only do the attackers harm individuals, but they harm the space where a community comes into communion with its faith.

Perhaps attackers select certain religious spaces simply to kill a higher number of the religious believers they have targeted. We must also consider cases of vandalism in which believers themselves do not endure physical harm, but, instead, vandals destroy or deface holy sites or places of worship. Often criminals commit these acts against minority religious groups. This has included recent vandalism of a Canadian mosque, a string of anti-Semitic threats in the U.S., and the Taliban’s demolition of the Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan in 2001, among many examples.

In these situations and in those more violent, the physical manifestation of the faith becomes a metaphoric lightning rod, serving as the representation of the group’s religious adherents. Crimes committed in these spaces of peace recognize the inherent link between a spiritual group and its place of worship or ceremony. Vandals and terrorists alike know the high level of emotional and spiritual damage they can cause.

In a twisted logic, it makes sense that those who seek to commit violent acts against a group on the basis of its faith would also target physical representations of that group’s religious identity. Unfortunately, as religiously-motivated violence increases, believers of all faiths and non-believers invested in the security of their fellow citizens may experience expanding threats to houses of worship, shrines, and other meaningful sites. Yet, physical destruction does not mean religious destruction. Though a difficult task, communities can rally behind shared identities—and even unshared identities—to rebuild and heal wounds of both the body and spirit. As a woman injured in the Pakistan attack told the Guardian, “The terrorists are targeting us because they hate our shrines. They attacked another shrine a couple of months ago. But we will never give up our faith.”

Alex Potcovaru is a junior in the School of Foreign Service from Reading, PA (it’s RED-ING) studying International Politics. He’s pursuing an International Security concentration and has a particular interest in law and religion. You can catch him on campus pretending to be a lawyer in Mock Trial and trying to be somewhat reasonable about his coffee intake.