Targeting churches: Fox News produces ominous report on threats in America

No one is saying, yet, that terrorists are ready to attack American churches the way they have in the Middle East or, more recently, against the Rev. Jacques Hamel in France. But as Fox News reports, the threats are already looming.

And before you say, "What else would Fox say?", consider the examples in the article: hate speech, death threats and aborted attack plans of the type that would be familiar to Jewish leaders.

This is how ominous it can get -- and how some police are slow to address the situation, according to Fox:

As Father Josiah Trenham prepared to read the Gospel, several parishioners discreetly scooped up their babies, retreated up the aisles of St. Andrew Orthodox Church and out into the spring air, so as not to allow the crying of little ones to disturb the divine liturgy.
The time-honored tradition was shattered when a car passed by the Riverside, Calif., church, slowing down as the front passenger leaned out of his window and bellowed menacingly through a bullhorn, according to witnesses.
"Allahu Akbar!" the unidentified man repeated several times as the unnerved parents drew their infants close and exchanged worried glances.
Witnesses were able to give Riverside police a description of the green Honda Civic, but not of the three occupants. Some told police they believed one or more of the men may have been taking photographs, according to Officer Ryan Railsback. Although Trenham insisted multiple congregants heard the Arabic phrase, Railsback noted no mention of it was in the police report. 
Whatever the case, no law was broken – even if an unmistakable message was sent and received.

Fox, of course, is hardly the only news outfit to notice the hatred of jihadis against Christians. As The Guardian reports, more and more voices are calling for branding the "genocide" label onto the brutalizing of Christians in the Middle East. 

The Telegraph, too, has carried warnings by British security officers that churches may well be among the jihadis' targets in the UK -- with one officer calling an attack "highly likely."

And the Fox article shows admirable -- and frightening -- indepth work to show that attacks on church make up a slow-burning threat that could indeed happen in the U.S.:

In February, Khial Abu-Rayyan, 21, of Dearborn Heights, Mich., was arrested after he told an undercover FBI agent he was preparing to "shoot up" a major church near his home on behalf of ISIS. A month earlier, the Rev. Roger Spradlin of Valley Baptist Church – one of the biggest congregations in Bakersfield, Calif. – told attendees that they had received a threat written in Arabic.
"Undercover officers were then placed during worship services," Valley Baptist spokesman Dave Kalahar said. "The FBI continues to investigate along with the local task force."
Last September, an Islamic man clad in combat gear was charged with making a terrorist threat after entering Corinth Missionary Baptist Church, in Bullard, Tex., and claiming that God had instructed him to kill Christians and "other infidels." A year earlier, police were called to Saint Bartholomew's Catholic Church in Columbus, Ind., after the house of worship was vandalized with the word "Infidels!" along with a Koranic verse sanctioning death for nonbelievers. Similar graffiti was found that same night at nearby Lakeview Church of Christ and East Columbus Christian Church.

To me, one of the most poignant facets of the article is that some of the targets appear to be eastern Christians. Fox says that St. Andrew, the church in the first anecdote, includes members with roots in Syria, Iraq, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. And Chaldean Christians from Iraq, worshiping in San Diego, have hired security, just in case. 

Can you imagine fleeing nearly halfway around the world, only to learn your persecutors are still stalking you? Actually, they don’t have to imagine it in Europe: Christians are being persecuted in refugee camps, according to Open Doors Germany.

Still another strength in the Fox report is noting the rise in anti-Semitic incidents, including outright crimes and conspiracies. It mentions, for one, the FBI arresting a Muslim convert in an alleged plot to blow up the Aventura Turnberry Jewish Center in South Florida. The story notes that a counter-terrorism outfit of the Los Angeles Police Department works with Jewish, Muslim and Sikh groups on terrorism-related issues.

The counter-terrorism spokesman is one of a satisfying variety of sources in this report, including not only police and church people but academics and the watchdog group International Christian Concern. 

Having praised the Fox article, I have a few criticisms. 

In the Riverside incident in the lede, it's not clear whether Ryan Railsback was the investigating officer or the public information officer. Either way, Fox should have asked him why the police report doesn't say that some congregants said they heard shouts of "Allahu Akbar."

There's also the question of numbers. 

"Jeff King, president of International Christian Concern, notes the threat tally is growing," Fox says. And what is that tally?

Ryan Mauro, an officer from the Clarion Project says that "many churches" are hiring security guards or self-defense instructors. How many is many? 

And what is the Clarion Project? It's an anti-jihadi group that has, for one thing, produced those fierce films about Islamic extremism, like Obsession and The Third Jihad. Mauro is clearly a favorite on Fox News, but he's also often dinged as a fearmongerer. Not that we should help his foes turn him into a pariah; but it may have been safer to add input from a group with broader acceptance, like the Center for Religious Freedom at Freedom House.

Finally, although Fox News associates anti-Christian hate with anti-Semitism, it stumbles in its documentation when it says, "A 2014 audit by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) found that anti-Semitic incidents rose 21 percent across the country that year." Actually, that was the 2015 audit of events, which occurred in 2014. And why not get the 2016 audit, the most recent report? Perhaps because the rise was slower, at 3 percent? But assaults, the most violent anti-Semitic category, rose more than 50 percent rise from 2014.

Please note, though, that most of my criticisms here are comparatively minor. They have to do with sourcing and fact checking, issues that I find all too common in mainstream media these days. But the article serves a vital journalistic function of not only reporting facts but spotting trends. 

And after seeing the trends in the Middle East and Europe, there is little reason to believe churches in North America will be exempt.  I'm sure they don’t think so at St. Andrew's Church in Riverside. 

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