Organisations representing the island’s faith-based community fear that their constitutional right to freely worship in Barbados may be under threat and urge that heightened security measures be put in place soon.
The declaration was made on Monday by three representative bodies, following Sunday’s daylight attack in the Sion Hill New Testament Church of God, St James where Pastor Gregney Holder and his wife Alison Holder were assaulted when a man walked into the church demanding that worshipers not use the name of Jesus. Pastor Holder was left nursing a gash to his head that one church member said took 12 stitches. His wife sustained a busted lip and some of the church benches and other property were damaged.
Up to Press time, a man was still in police custody assisting them in their investigations into the incident which sent shockwaves across the St James district.
Today, the Barbados District of the Pentecostal Assemblies of the West Indies (PAWI) suggested that this incident should serve as a trigger for churches to treat security more seriously and do everything practicable to put measures in place to protect their congregants and property.
“It is now critical that the Christian community develop heightened awareness, exercise greater vigilance, and where possible, improve security to ensure that our congregants continue to give expression to their faith in a safe environment,” Head of the PAWI Bishop Selwyn Brathwaite told Barbados TODAY.
While expressing “great concern and alarm” at the events surrounding the assault, Bishop Brathwaite was adamant that this occurrence ought not be seen as a one-off situation.
“This must not be treated as an isolated event since when one assembly is disrupted all are impacted. This incident further exacerbates the feeling of discomfort one senses in what is an escalating deterioration of values finding outlet in certain expressions and attitudes within our society,” he stated. “In a country where freedom of religion is practiced, it is less than encouraging to learn that a member of the public can trespass onto a place of worship in a threatening manner demanding a stop to the expression of people’s faith eventually resulting in injury, insult, embarrassment, and damage to property set apart for sacred use,” the Bishop pointed out
He said that while his organisation may not be privy to all the circumstances surrounding the alleged perpetrator’s state of mind, it did not lessen the sense of susceptibility to which members of the religious community may feel exposed. In a strong condemnation of the act, the Barbados Evangelical Association (BEA) also recommended that its member-churches and the religious community at large, either improve their security or introduce measures to better protect their worshipers.
“While there may be a set of factors regarding this incident of which we are not fully aware, this happenstance can be used as a benchmark to remind us that these are times when the church must not only be prayerful, but must exercise due diligence in pursuit of the safeguarding of its membership,” said acting President of the BEA Dr Winston Clarke. “The prevalence of the apparent disregard for human life, the disrespect by some persons of the church and the challenges among some persons to maintain a livelihood, remain a concern for the church,” Dr Clarke declared.
The BEA leader also expressed concern regarding possible threats to the rights of people to freely practise their religious faith as provided for in the Barbados Constitution.
“The Barbados Constitution guarantees the right of freedom of religion and any act or omission which leads to a deprivation or interruption of that constitutional right, must be guarded tenaciously,” he contended. He said his association was mindful that “this general” attitude has been propelled by secularism as well as by parents who no longer seem to see as part of their role, the passing on of traditional values.
The acting BEA president is adamant that this incident will not force the church into hiding
“We remain committed however, to doing all we can within reason, to halt the moral decadence in our Barbadian society and will not allow this incident to hamstring our determination to worship God or keep the church glowing as a lighthouse for those who are spiritually lost,” he insisted.
The local Muslim community and the Anglican church also weighed in on the development with secretary of the Muslim Association of Barbados (MAB) Sulieman Bulbulia saying that his community was disturbed about the threat now posed to places of worship that are supposed to “safe spaces”. He also believes that faith-based organisations need now to seriously consider having trained security personnel on their properties.
“We should always be vigilant to our surroundings and persons entering our places of worship. I think it is an opportunity for our places of worship to pay a little more attention to safety and security and perhaps have individuals trained in that area ,” he told Barbados TODAY. Bulbulia said Muslims will join with other people of faith in ensuring their places of worship are free of such unfortunate events.
Anglican Bishop Reverend Michael Maxwell declared that at this time when some church goers are hesitant to return to physical church due to COVID-19, they should not also have to be fearful for their security.
Condemning the actions of the brazen intruder on Sunday Bishop Maxwell told members of the media on Monday that he hoped the incident was a one-off event and would not happen again at another church.
“I was very disturbed when I would have seen the Facebook clip that was shared widely. It is a concern as to security within our various churches. I trust that this is a one off incident, and that this is not going to become a trend in our society, but that indeed we recognise that the church has responsibility of sharing what it believes to be the gospel to enable persons to live better lives and that indeed it will be respected by all, and the safety of our parishioners when they come to church, they will not be in anyway terrified or that they would find themselves in danger,” he said.
Police Public Relations Officer Acting Inspector Rodney Inniss, informed the media that the perpetrator was assisting the officers at the Holetown Police Station in connection with the assault on Pastor Holder and his wife.
The attack was partly captured on camera as the church was streaming the service when the incident occurred.
“Already we are battling with the whole thing of some parishioners kind of scared to return to church because of COVID. And we don’t want to have any other element now deterring them from coming together and assembling with the saints to worship God in a safe space,” Bishop Maxwell said.
Barbadians reacted with shock on social media after part of the attack was captured on camera. Delivering a sermon, assistant pastor Reverend Ambrose Headley was repeatedly interrupted by a male. Though the individual was not seen on camera, his voice was heard making several remarks as he moved closer to the platform. Congregants attempted to quell the situation with prayer but a full-on ruckus ensued. Items were displaced including the camera streaming the service live online, as screams for help and prayers were be heard.
After the incident was brought under control, first lady Holder returned to assure followers that the situation was being handled and alleged that the assault began after they refused to give in to the suspect’s demand to “stop calling the name of Jesus. She said the intruder spat on her and her husband’s faces and proceeded to physically assault Reverend Holder who later appeared with a bloodied shirt. She sustained cuts to her lower lip.
“This country is to be a safe country where we can worship God in peace. He has destroyed all of our benches in his rage,” Alison Holder said following the incident. The church was forced to postpone the evening service.