Attacks on Houses of Worship

Last Updated: April 30, 2019

A disturbing trend of deadly assaults in synagogues, mosques, and churches has unfolded worldwide in the six months from October 2018 through April 2019. Jewish, Christian, and Muslim worshippers have all been attacked in their places of worship, in Poway, California, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, across Sri Lanka, in Christchurch, New Zealand, and beyond. These horrific acts of violence appear to be rooted in the international spread of violent ideologies— white nationalist ideology in the cases of the violence in Pittsburgh, Christchurch, and Poway and religious extremism in Sri Lanka. All of these attacks were designed to spread fear and hatred around the world.

Educators play a vital role in responding to acts of hate. Even as we mourn, we have to help our students process these recent events within a safe and supportive learning community. Students need to share their reactions and hear those of their classmates, and with our guidance, explore difficult questions about the past, present, and future.

Addressing these attacks with your students may begin with a single conversation, but we hope that the practice of fostering a peaceful and inclusive classroom community will continue to inform everything you teach. As Fernando Reimers, international education leader and Facing History board member reminded us in the wake of the attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh,

Addressing the most visible attacks, once they happen, requires the specialized knowledge and organization of law enforcement. Preventing them requires the concerted effort of each and every one of us . . . Preventing such hatred at the roots . . . requires deeper and earlier action in communities and schools.1

This teaching idea provides ideas to facilitate a class discussion around this difficult topic. It also includes resources for exploring how communities respond after incidents of hate, as well as information on the ideology of white nationalism, which appears to have fueled the recent attacks on synagogues and mosques. (To learn more about the causes of the attacks against churches in Sri Lanka, see the article How Sri Lanka's Christians Became a Target from The Atlantic).

  1. Prepare for Class

    Before leading a conversation with students, check in with yourself. How have you been affected by the events of the past week? What is on your mind? Being conscious of your own responses and concerns can help you foster a safer and more open conversation in your classroom.

    Consider, too, the ways that your students may have been impacted by recent news. You may have survivors of violence in your class, or students feeling newly vulnerable because of their identity and connection to groups who have been targeted. What support might those students need, and what resources in your school, including counselors and social workers, could help to provide it?

  2. Create a Reflective Environment for Discussion

    Let your students know that your classroom is a safe space. Begin with a brief contracting activity if you have not already forged that safe space. Share background information with your students about the attacks in order to dispel misinformation and to ensure that all students have a background understanding of the events. The article Poway Shooting Latest In Series of Attacks On Places Of Worship from NPR provides a brief summary of each attack. Allow time for students to name what stands out to them in the news of the past week and then to process and reflect, perhaps writing in journals and then sharing some thoughts with a partner. You might use the following writing prompts: The recent attacks are disturbing and painful to learn about. They prompt us to ask many questions, some of which may not have an answer. What questions does this event raise for you? What feelings does it provoke? How do you see the events in New Zealand, Sri Lanka, Pittsburgh, and California affecting people in your home, in your school, and in your community? Who in your community, including yourself, might be feeling particularly vulnerable right now? Graffiti Boards and S-I-T are two other teaching strategies that can help students reflect on difficult topics.

  3. How Do Communities Respond to Violence?

    Acts of violence can exacerbate tension in a community but can also unite people across divides. Read the New York Times article Sri Lanka’s Muslims Face an Angry Backlash After Easter Sunday Attacks and watch the BBC News video Sri Lanka Attacks: The Street Fighting Back with Peace with your students. These resources show different responses from communities in Sri Lanka in the wake of the Easter attacks. Discuss with your students the variety of different responses described in these two sources. Then, ask your students to reflect more generally on recent acts of violence in places of worship. Ask them: How does violence divide people? In what ways might violence unite people? What can we do if we ourselves are feeling vulnerable? How can we stand with and support others who are feeling vulnerable? What are some meaningful actions we can take, even if only in our own home, neighborhood, or school? Finally, consider asking your students to research other community responses to the violence in Pittsburgh, Christchurch, Poway, or Sri Lanka. Ask your students to reflect on the question, how do people work to build peaceful, inclusive communities—or deal with ongoing violence—in the days, months, or years after attacks?

Additional Resources

Use these resources to further explore the ways in which communities are impacted by and respond to acts of violence:

  • The reading Not in Our Town describes how a community in Montana organized in response to antisemitism.
  • The Aftermath Project uses photos to document the impact war has on communities even after violence ends.



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