The blood of the innocent cries out to Heaven, we are told. Sometimes that cry does not have to travel far, as when slaughter is visited upon the very houses of worship where one goes to encounter God.
The massacre of innocents is always an abominable crime. When done in the name of God, it is compounded by the sin of blasphemy. When done in the house of God, it constitutes a sacrilege. Blasphemous and sacrilegious murder is on the increase.
The Sikh temple massacre in Wisconsin is not even the latest attack — and appears to be motivated more by racial hatred than religion (though for Sikhs, culture, ethnicity and religion are inextricably intertwined). In any case, to kill at a temple is a particularly diabolical choice, inseparable — even in the mind of one consumed by murderous rage — from the decision to desecrate a holy place. To kill those who are gathered to pray, in a place of peace, is an offence against human life and more besides. It is an offence against the entire human patrimony, which, from time immemorial, has created and recognized sanctuaries where the wickedness abroad in the world is somehow restrained.
The word “sanctuary” means holy place, but has a secondary meaning as a place of refuge and retreat. A place of safety, open and secure. Military and police forces controlled by civilized governments typically recognize the principle of sanctuary, and will not enter houses of worship to apprehend those who have sought refuge there. The principle acknowledges that force of arms, even that sanctioned by due process of law in the name of keeping the peace, is not suitable for a house of prayer. There must be places where we can seek sanctuary from the law of force.
The day after the killing of peaceful Sikhs at their temple in Milwaukee, the Deeper Life evangelical church in central Nigeria was invaded and barricaded. The assailants then turned off the lights and opened fire, killing 25 Christians inside. It is suspected that the killings are the work of the Islamist terror group Boko Haram, which has launched a campaign of killings at churches, with several Sunday-morning attacks over the past months. Last Christmas witnessed a co-ordinated campaign of church bombings in Nigeria that killed dozens of pilgrims who sought only to celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace.
The Christmas bombing has become, one fears, a grisly new tradition in Egypt. In successive years, Coptic Christians have been massacred at church on Christmas.
Sacrilegious violence seems to be gathering force. During the Bosnian war in the 1990s, Serbian troops carried out systematic campaigns of desecration, damaging the majority of mosques and Catholic churches in their path. It was an astonishing departure from the noble military tradition of respecting houses of worship, even in times of war.
In 2006, the Anglican and Greek Orthodox churches in the Palestinian city of Nablus were firebombed. Also in 2006, the great al-Askari mosque in Samarra, Iraq was bombed by al-Qaeda, a Sunni attack on one of the holiest shrines for Shia Muslims. No one was killed in that early-morning blast, but the violence it triggered claimed hundreds of lives in the following days. Four years later, in 2010, terrorists attacked Our Lady of Salvation cathedral in Baghdad, killing two priests and some 50 Christians during Sunday Mass.
We are not entirely immune from this in Canada, though no killings have taken place. Just 10 years ago, a synagogue was bombed in Quebec City, and about a year before that, the Catholic cathedral in Montreal was targeted for vandalism, with services disrupted and the building desecrated by self-styled feminist protesters.
Violence against places of worship is doubly cruel to the victims. The very temples that the faithful frequent in times of grief, to offer prayers and perform the obsequies for the dead, are now places of fear and anxiety. The violence visited there kills not only the pilgrim, but threatens the sanctuary he seeks.
There is nothing much to be done. Aside from at a few very prominent shrines, enhanced security would neither be effective or feasible. More to the point, the sanctuary that erects around itself a defensive perimeter is compromising something of its mission in the world, namely to be an open place offering a respite from the vale of tears in which we live.
My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations — so the Lord spoke to ancient Israel. That prayer too often is the spilled blood crying out from the ground.