Local mosques urged to take security precautions in wake of New Zealand massacre

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Muslim houses of worship across the state of Florida are being urged to take additional security precautions in the wake of shootings at two mosques in New Zealand where 49 were killed and at least 20 more wounded.

“We have encouraged all mosques to ensure they have increased law enforcement patrols, especially at Friday sermon time,” said Hassan Shibly, executive director of the Florida Council on American Islamic Relations in Tampa.

Shibly’s warning comes after the terror attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand, during Friday prayers there. A man who claimed responsibility for the shootings left a 74-page anti-immigrant manifesto. He said he was a 28-year-old white Australian and a racist.

READ MORE: Dozens killed in New Zealand mosque terror attacks

Tampa police say there is no information suggesting any increased threats locally, but the department is taking precautions.

“We are doing a threat assessment, and have found no threats,” said Tampa Police spokesman Steve Hegarty. “The districts have been instructed to do spot checks at area mosques.”

Shibly said there are four or five large mosques in the Tampa area, many smaller ones and about 50,000 Muslims.

In a news release, CAIR-Florida condemned the apparent anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant hate that appears to have motivated the attacks and urged mosques in the United States and worldwide to step up security measures. Simultaneous news conferences are scheduled throughout Florida at 11:30 a.m., according to the release.

Hegarty’s assessment matches that of Nezar Hamze, a Broward County Sheriffs Office deputy and director of the South Florida Muslim Foundation. For the past three years, Hamze has been providing security briefings to nearly 100 mosques across the state, including many in the Tampa area.

Like Hegarty, he said there was no intelligence information indicating any attacks are planned in the United States. But Thursday night, after learning about the massacre in New Zealand, Hamze sent a statewide alert to the Muslim community asking people to take several security precautions.

He urged everyone to remain calm and de-escalate tensions, ask for increased police presence at mosques during Friday prayer and suggested that volunteers from the board of each mosque stand outside to greet worshipers and look out for any suspicious behavior.

“I know there are a lot of nervous people who have security concerns,” Hamze said.

In his travels to mosques across the state, Hamze has provided active shooter training, teaching congregations how to respond to situations like that in Christchurch.

“It’s been a lot of hard work, a lot of traveling, preparing people, role playing with them, letting them know this is a very real thing that could happen,” he said.

Every congregation board should have a safety and security committee and practice drills a couple of time a year, he said.

“We need to raise awareness, so that if a tragedy happens, we actually have a response and not just get mowed down.”

Shibly said that what happened in Christchurch is the new reality for members of all faiths.

“In my line of work, we work every single day to fight bigotry, Islamophobia and hatred to prevent that kind of attack from happening,” he said. “This was one of our biggest fears.”

It’s not just hypothetical, Shibly said.

“It happened when 11 of our Jewish brothers and sisters were killed in cold blood,” he said, speaking of an attack in October on a Pittsburgh synagogue. “And it happened when nine of our Christian brothers and sisters were killed in cold blood” at a historically black church in 2015. “This isn’t unique.”

Times reporter Tony Marrero and information from the Associated Press contributed to this report. Contact Howard Altman at [email protected] or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman

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