Security personnel inspect debris outside the Syrian Catholic cathedral in Baghdad, Iraq, in November, 2010 after dozens of hostages and police were killed when security forces raided the cathedral to free worshippers being held by gunmen wearing explosives. CNS photo/Mohammed Ameen, Reuters

War on houses of worship

  • March 5, 2015

As I wrote last week from Jerusalem, just months after the massacre at a synagogue in Har Nof, an ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighbourhood, I felt a duty to make a visit, to pray for the dead and to offer, in a small way, solidarity with those who suffered the desecration of their house of worship.

It is treacherous to speak of codes of honour in war today, as “total warfare” has often erased the distinction between combatants and non-combatants, between military and civilian targets. Yet there was an older tradition that made such distinctions, even if honoured in the breach, and granted a certain “sanctuary” to places of worship. I was a student at Cambridge during the semicentennial year of VE Day, and recall reading the history of King’s College Chapel during the Second World War, during which all the massive stained glass windows were removed for safekeeping. Yet the Nazis did not bomb the most prominent building in Cambridge. War respected, if one might use that word, houses of worship.

Terrorism is not conventional war, and decisions about targets are not taken by officers of state who, at the very least, might not want to expose their own religious and cultural treasures to retaliatory attack. Nevertheless, it is deeply offensive to mankind’s religious sensibility when the atrocity of wanton terror is aggravated by the sacrilege of shedding blood in the synagogue, the church, the mosque, the temple.

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