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Sacred places under attack

By Sue Nowicki

McClatchy Newspapers

Published: Friday, Sept. 24 2010 5:57 p.m. MDT

Police detective Chris Jenning walks out of the doors of a Mormon church where a bishop was slain in Visalia, Calif.

Gary Kazanjian, Mct

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MODESTO, Calif. — A few weeks ago, a Modesto, Calif., man shot and killed a Mormon bishop in Visalia, Calif. A day earlier, an intruder broke into St. Stanislaus Catholic Church, smashed four statues of Mary and overturned an organ.

"This level of violence is very disturbing. ... Churches are supposed to be sanctuaries," said Roy Wasden, president of the LDS Church's Modesto stake.

The idea of churches as sanctuary is an ancient one. The Mosaic law let fugitives take refuge at the altar of God. The Jewish temple was a holy place where people could come to have priests atone for their sins.

England's law recognized the right of sanctuary — churches as the place people could be safe from arrest — from the fourth to 17th centuries. In medieval Europe, churches even gave sanctuary to convicted criminals.

In this country, although no U.S. laws support shielding people from the government, churches have provided sanctuary for escaped slaves, for Vietnam draft dodgers and for Central American immigrants in the 1980s fleeing brutal conditions and civil wars.

There's also the issue of holiness. In the Old Testament, if you didn't approach God's house or his holy items such as the Ark of the Covenant with reverence, God often would take your life. The idea of the sacred has been attached to houses of worship through the centuries. To defile churches or special elements in them is considered sacrilegious.

But that sense of holiness and sanctuary seems to have dissolved in recent years amid a series of high-profile fatalities:

A schizophrenic man walked into an Illinois church in 2009 with 30 rounds of ammunition and shot the pastor through his heart as he was preaching.

That same year, a Kansas abortion doctor serving as an usher at his church was killed by a man who believed he was saving the lives of children.

In 2008, an unemployed gunman opened fire with 76 shotgun shells, killing two adults and wounding seven in a Tennessee church while 25 children were staging a play.

In 2006, a milk truck driver entered an Amish schoolhouse, killing five girls and seriously wounding another five.

There also have been arson and vandalism attacks.

Locally, Congregation Beth Shalom in Modesto was hit in March 2009 by two vandals who spray-painted swastikas and derogatory ethnic slurs on the building.

Three years earlier, the synagogue was similarly defaced on the same weekend that the Greek Orthodox Church was hit by vandals who painted a black "666" on a stone cross, a satanic symbol on its steps and curse words against Christ on office doors. Also that weekend, a large rock was thrown through a window across town at Our Lady of Fatima School.

Also in 2006, the Old Brethren Church in Tuolumne City, Calif., was destroyed by arson.

Spokesmen from several churches in Modesto said they also have suffered from thefts, broken windows and other problems in recent years.

Alarm systems, security cameras and locked doors have replaced the open-door policy on religious sites.

So why are faith communities' buildings seemingly under greater attack by people who no longer see them as a place of sanctuary or holiness?

The Bee asked area faith leaders. Here's what they said:

"There are more than 38 million people living in California. I firmly believe 98 percent of them are good. That means there are only 2 percent that have problems, but (that's) 760,000 people. ...

"I believe the violence that claimed the life of Bishop Clay Sannar was not the action of a person in his right mind. I doubt we will ever have a full understanding of what drove the actions of Kenneth Ward, but I have seen an outpouring of love and respect by and for both the Sannar and the Ward families that increases respect for the sacred nature of our sanctuaries and our desire to hold them as places of shelter and peace. I believe our places of worship are more significant as sanctuaries than they ever have been as a result of what has happened recently."

— Roy Wasden, Modesto stake president for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

"These actions are not new or recent. In modern times, at least in our country, churches have been seen as places of safety. And many are shocked as they see that safety erode. But historically, being a follower of Jesus has never been 'safe.' The history of the church shows that many who chose to follow Jesus forfeited their lives.

"The recent acts of violence are indeed sad, but they are not new. There are many places in the world this very day where choosing to follow Jesus means choosing to potentially forfeit your life."

—The Rev. Bob Collins, Centenary United Methodist Church, Modesto

"There was a time in ancient Israel where society was described as, 'The people did whatever seemed right in their own eyes.' (Judges 17:6). This was the result of rejecting God's direction. Each individual was his or her own ultimate authority. Each person decided what was sacred; what was acceptable or unacceptable.

"I believe we have reached the same place as a society. This is at the root of treating church buildings, other properties and even people however we think is acceptable, regardless of civil law or God's law."

—The Rev. Wade Estes, CrossPoint Community Church, Modesto

"Churches once referred to their worship area as a sanctuary, and many societies recognized and respected those areas as sanctuaries. It is interesting today that many churches no longer refer to their worship areas as sanctuaries. Perhaps it is due to a growing lack of respect for churches by society in general.

"I do not think churches have lost their identity as sacred places, but I do think society in general does not have the same respect for houses of worship as has been true in the past."

—The Rev. Ron Youngdale, Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Turlock

"For a long time, the church has become a target of violence whenever it speaks up in the name of truth and justice. In 1980, Archbishop Oscar Romero was assassinated while giving Mass in his church in El Salvador. He was assassinated because he was living out the church's call to be a voice for the poor, the outcast, a voice against injustice.

"Whenever the church faithfully heeds that call, we open ourselves up to the possibility of violence in a myriad of forms from verbal to graffiti onward. ... But the gospel preaches love, and the church must bear witness to that love no matter what, just as Jesus did even as he was being put on the cross."

—The Rev. Erin Matteson, Modesto Church of the Brethren

"I don't know if these incidents are more common than in earlier times. I suspect that the pressures of our times, with great changes and economic woes may be a factor. Also, American religion has become much more diverse, bringing more of us face to face with the fact that ours is not the only faith being practiced in our communities. Some find this troubling, even threatening.

"The sacred nature of our sanctuaries is maintained, however, by our response to these incidents. If we respond with prayer and forgiveness for the offender, we honor the faith tradition we claim. ... We keep faith with the sacred."

—The Rev. Grace Simons, Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Stanislaus County

"The church has not lost its identity as a sacred place. The vandalism to our church shows that the perpetrator targeted the church precisely because of its sacredness. The person wanted to desecrate a holy space.

"I agree some people have lost respect for these places, but most people treat them with respect. When we lose respect for life, which is one of the most sacred gifts God has given us, we could dangerously lose respect for everything else that is sacred. ... We will continue to defend the church as a sanctuary of peace and refuge for souls. The church is a place of prayer and encounter with God."

—The Rev. Ramon Bejarano, St. Stanislaus Catholic Church, Modesto