DHS to houses of worship: Start planning now for life after COVID-19 crisis

The federal agency also warned that security plans should be reviewed.

April 8, 2020, 2:12 PM

As many Americans prepare to celebrate Easter or Passover while separated from their families and friends, the Department of Homeland Security is asking churches, synagogues, mosques and other temples across the country to start planning for life after the novel coronavirus crisis, when worshippers can be together again.

"Although many people undoubtedly continue to practice their faith, including through remote services and prayer, most are inevitably eager to return to normalcy and join their fellow congregants in practicing their faiths," the assistant director for infrastructure security at DHS, Brian Harrell, said in a letter to leaders of faith-based communities. "The American people are resilient, and we will achieve this goal soon."

In the letter, Harrell not only suggested that the practice of "social distancing" might have to continue even when houses of worship open up again, but he warned that terrorists, white supremacists and other extremists are exploiting the unfolding pandemic "to encourage violence or use the ongoing situation as an excuse to spread hatred."

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In fact, federal authorities have warned that some anti-Semitic conspiracy theories spreading online claim Israel manufactured the new coronavirus and then spread it around the world.

PHOTO: A patient is wheeled to a waiting ambulance outside Elmhurst Hospital Center, Tuesday, April 7, 2020, in the Queens borough of New York.
A patient is wheeled to a waiting ambulance outside Elmhurst Hospital Center, Tuesday, April 7, 2020, in the Queens borough of New York.
Kathy Willens/AP

But even without such conspiracy theories, the "stressors caused by the pandemic may contribute to an individual's decision to commit an attack or influence their target of choice," according to Harrell's letter.

"(W)e have no information to suggest such attacks are imminent or even likely, instead we are looking to provide you with useful information for planning for restoration of normal operations, whenever that may be," he wrote.

He encouraged houses of worship to "review your security plans and ensure procedures are in place to protect your facilities and visitors."

He concluded his letter by telling recipients, "Thank you again for everything you do to champion the American people's Constitutional First Amendment rights, as well as your leadership in keeping our houses of worship safe and secure."

PHOTO: A photo of a church service.
STOCK PHOTO/Getty Images

Nevertheless, even in the midst of the coronavirus crisis, some houses of worship around the country are continuing to hold services, despite the dangers it could pose and despite orders from local and state governments.

Two weeks ago, a pastor in Tampa, Florida, was arrested on unlawful assembly charges after he defied such orders and "refused … to temporarily stop holding large gatherings at his church," Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister said at the time.

"His reckless disregard for human life put hundreds of people in his congregation at risk and thousands of residents who may interact with them this week in danger," Chronister said.

ABC News' Liz Alesse contributed to this report.

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