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Ahead of inauguration, faith leaders urge devotees in state capitols to take precautions

‘We strongly encourage you to be attendant to all safety concerns for ministers and congregations,’ read a statement from the United Church of Christ.

People listen as President Donald Trump speaks during a rally Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

WASHINGTON (RNS) — Liberal religious groups and minority faith communities around the country are urging caution in the days leading up to President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration, with some expressing concerns of potential violence against “liberal churches.”

On Friday evening (Jan. 15), the United Church of Christ tweeted out a message to member churches warning “there are reports that ‘liberal’ churches will become targets of possible attacks” from Jan. 17 until Inauguration Day, Jan. 20.

“We strongly encourage you to be attendant to all safety concerns for ministers and congregations, even if that means meeting in a way that is other than in person at a church building this week,” read the statement, which was posted to the UCC’s official Twitter account.

Reached for comment on Saturday morning, UCC officials issued an additional statement to Religion News Service, saying the warning was based on “credible threats.”

“This started with concerns over credible threats identified by a couple of UCC Conference Ministers (our regional leaders) and one of our ecumenical partner communions,” the statement read. “Erring on the side of caution and noting the previous attacks on our churches in the West and, in recent weeks, against like-minded churches in D.C., our national leadership decided to ask our congregations to be vigilant going into inauguration week.”

The UCC later added that the potential attacks appear to be connected to threats against liberal institutions and “government buildings” — possibly the widely reported threats to capitol buildings in all 50 states revealed through an internal FBI bulletin obtained by ABC — but that “Mainline churches are among the entities that have been identified by law enforcement as potential targets.”

Church officials did not detail the specific nature of the threats, nor name any law enforcement agencies they may have been in contact with.

When asked to confirm such threats, an FBI spokesperson did not directly respond. Instead, the spokesperson pointed to public statements made by FBI Director Christopher Wray on Thursday regarding Inauguration security. The remarks do not specify threats to churches, but note unease regarding an “extensive amount of concerning online chatter” and that “potential threats” of violence are being posed around the country.

“The American people may not hear about every disruption in the media and may not see the FBI’s hand in everything we do, but they should be confident that there’s an awful lot of work all across the country going on behind the scenes, out of the spotlight, where we’re feeding relevant information to all of our partners so that they can harden targets as appropriate,” Wray says in the remarks.

Supporters of President Donald Trump overtake the inauguration stage in front of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

The warning from UCC officials raised alarm in some communities, spurring the Rev. Franz Rigert, minister of the UCC’s Wisconsin Conference, to send a message to area ministers aiming to calm “unnecessary alarm.” He clarified that while “caution is necessary,” there are currently “no specific threats” to any UCC conference.

In a separate interview with RNS, Franz noted he intends to remain vigilant should the situation change.

Other faith communities are also on high alert. Multiple bishops of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America have sent out emails encouraging pastors to avoid meeting in their church buildings or streaming services live this Sunday, and one Alaska bishop, the Rev. Shelley Wickstrom, said in an email to church leaders in her synod that there were reports hate groups were planning to attack “liberal activists and churches” in addition to state capitol buildings.

Wickstrom told RNS she later clarified to regional leaders that a local FBI office had not heard similar threats in Alaska.

Episcopal Bishop Todd Ousley, who works with the presiding bishop’s office, said his office was not aware of any direct threats at the moment, but he acknowledged “heightened anxiety” among church members.

Other faith groups have also expressed concern about potential confrontations. On Friday, the Sikh Coalition sent out a public statement urging members to remain “vigilant” around the inauguration and sharing information for how to report hate incidents.

“No one, regardless of their political views, deserves to be targeted, and bias-related crimes are a heightened concern in these moments–especially for marginalized communities who are often subject to discrimination,” the statement read.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations encouraged Muslim Americans to stay away from state capitol buildings and surrounding areas until after Biden’s inauguration, reportedly citing threats of violence in those areas. CAIR’s Florida chapter also warned Muslims to stay away from the demonstrations in general, so as not to become a target for violence.

Leaders of the Unitarian Universalist Association have sent messages to local leaders around the country dissuading them from participating in confrontational counterprotests against Trump supporters, and encouraging people to “avoid traveling to congregations located in downtown areas on the 17th.”

Various other faith communities did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The warnings follow recent attacks on churches in Washington, D.C., by the Proud Boys, a far-right extremist organization that expresses support for Donald Trump.

In December, Proud Boys were filmed tearing down and destroying Black Lives Matter signs from three area churches, and reportedly stealing a banner at another church, Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church, that expressed liberal-leaning views. Two of the churches, Asbury United Methodist Church and Metropolitan AME, are historic Black congregations, and the latter has since filed suit against the Proud Boys and its leader, Enrique Tarrio. (Tarrio was arrested in January after he claimed responsibility for the burning of one of the church’s signs.)

All four churches have since replaced their signs — some multiple times — and Mount Vernon has replaced its missing liberal-leaning banner with a new one that declares “Black Lives Matter.” The churches were also granted additional police presence when Proud Boys returned to the city on Jan. 6, the same day as the Capitol raid.

But when clergy gathered that day around a new Black Lives Matter banner at Luther Place Memorial Church, one of the congregations whose signs were destroyed in December, they were harassed by Trump supporters: Two walked into the prayer circle and mockingly reenacted the 2020 killing of George Floyd at the hands of police. As they did so, faith leaders said one of the men reportedly referred to him as “that n— George Floyd.”