CHURCH leaders are praying for peace as millions of pilgrims make their way to World Youth Day in Poland, while security experts are examining ways to allay heightened security fears surrounding the global event.
“At this time of instability in Europe, we pray for those who have been affected by the recent events and in the words of Pope Francis, we continue to ask God for the gift of peace and harmony,” a statement issued by the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference said.
After a string of terror attacks, the ACBC has been monitoring the safety of Australian pilgrimage groups travelling throughout Europe prior to World Youth Day.
About 3000 Australian pilgrims will join with millions of youth from around the world as they meet with Pope Francis in Krakow for World Youth Day from July 26-31.
Terrorism expert Professor Greg Barton said the recent Nice, France massacre – in which 84 people died after a truck driver rammed a vehicle into a crowd celebrating Bastille Day – repres-ented a new and worrying development.
“It really has raised the stakes and lowered the threshold for potential attacks,” Prof Barton said.
“With World Youth Day, security experts will be looking at a worst-case scenario as they adjust their planning.”
He said French security experts had learnt from the truck attack along Nice’s waterfront boulevard where there were barricades in place, but they were not robust barriers.
“What should have been in place were concrete barriers that could have stopped a truck attack,” Prof Barton said.
“A lot can be done with bollards and brace walls.”
Prof Barton said he expected WYD planners would now be looking at beefing up physical barriers that could counter this kind of worst-case scenario.
Polish security expert Dr Tomasz Aleksandrowicz, professor at the police academy in Szczytno, said World Youth Day was by definition a potential terrorist target and that was how it needed to be treated.
“The threat exists and it is real,” he said.
“Terrorism is a brutal game of symbols and messages.
“Through their attacks, terrorists send us a certain type of message, telling us that we have to be afraid, as they are stronger than us.
“Please remember that terrorists always have the upper hand versus the state.
“They can strike at any given moment and place using a method of their choosing.
“The state on the other hand, cannot defend everything all the time from every type of attack.
“There is no doubt that the threat of terrorist activity is indeed higher due to the WYD event.”
Prof Barton, who recently addressed a colloquium on Violence and Religion at the Melbourne campus of the Australian Catholic University, identified three types of terror attackers – those from large and existing groups, like Islamic State (ISIS), those acting with support from these groups, but usually with less planning, and “lone wolf” operators.
“The lone-wolf attempts are harder to track, because they are cleanskins,” he said.
“It is up to a team of security experts to consider every possibility.”
Another colloquium participant, US Professor William Cavanaugh, from De Paul University, said his research showed that no particular religion could be associated with terrorism. In fact he believed secular ideology provided terrorists with more of a foothold towards committing violence than Islam or any other religion.
“There’s no question certain people do promote and enact violence on the basis of their faith. There’s no question there are Islamic terrorists who commit violence on behalf of Islam,” Prof Cavanaugh, author of The Myth of Religious Violence, said.
However, he said it was important to “level the playing field and not only examine instances of Islamic terrorism but also the violence that is done on behalf of secular ideologies and institutions like free markets, democracy and capitalism, socialism and so on”.
“Two hundred thousand people were killed in the invasion of Iraq. We tend to ignore that and look at the much more sensational acts of terrorism, which is part of the reason terrorists do what they do – because we pay attention,” he said.
Prof Cavanaugh agreed people should not cower in the face of potential terrorists.
“It’s important to go about our daily business and not let terrorism define who we are. It’s important to go on being peaceful and extending olive branches wherever possible,” he said.
“So that is what I am trying to do in my work, is level the playing field between religious and secular so we combat this ideology that religious faith is prone to craziness and secular things are rational and peacemaking.
“If we can counter that sort of narrative it lessens the possibility of demonising others and escalating the violence.”
By Mark Bowling