On a Friday night, two weeks before the start of Ramadan — the Muslim holy month of fasting and increased worship — Muslim congregants gathered at Masjid Al-Jumu'ah — one of two mosques of the Muslim Association of Bolingbrook.
But it was not for a typical “Welcome Ramadan” program or a talk on attaining greater spirituality. Instead, attendees learned to “Run, Hide, Fight” in case a bigot decides to start shooting at them while they are prostrated in prayer.
Since the attacks last month on two mosques in New Zealand that killed 50 people and injured as many others who were at Friday prayers, local mosques in Plainfield, Bolingbrook and Romeoville are taking greater security measures to protect and prepare their congregants in case of an active shooter event.
“We have lost peace of mind and heart,” said Muhammad Sarfaraz, a board member with Taleem Ul Haq Foundation in Romeoville.
Sarfaraz said that after the New Zealand attacks, one worshipper called to say he would not attend Friday prayers without police presence. For the last few weeks, Will County Sheriff’s deputies have been present at that mosque on Fridays.
Mohammad Chaudhry, a board member with MAB, said plans for building security plans have been in place for a while but have been accelerated since the New Zealand shooter targeted Muslims at Friday prayers to maximize fatalities.
Weekly Friday prayers see hundreds of congregants pack the larger mosques like Masjid Al-Jumu'ah. The month of Ramadan will bring hundreds every night, starting Sunday.
Thousands will flock to mosques in greater Chicago for celebratory prayers for the Muslim holiday of Eid ul Fitr at the end of the month of fasting in early June.
For the protection of their congregants, these mosques are incorporating greater security measures, including active shooter workshops and drills, escape plans, new alarm systems and added security cameras, bulletproof doors with cameras and buzzers, and more paid as well as volunteer security guards.
Some mosques, like Al-Jumuah, are authorizing congregants with concealed-carry permits to carry guns during prayers.
Fifty-seven mosques in greater Chicago have been collaborating under the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago to get training and advice on proper security protocols, said Maqsood Quadri, chief operating officer for CIOGC.
Ramping up security can be costly, with the thousands of dollars needed for new equipment and hiring of off-duty police officers for long-term protection, said Zaki Basalath, secretary at Masjid Meraj, one of two Plainfield mosques.
Sarfaraz said “it is unfortunate” money that can be used to help needy members of the community are being diverted toward security needs.
The two Muslim police officers who led the active shooter workshop at Bolingbrook’s Masjid Al-Jumu'ah said that although houses of worship make up the smallest percentage of targets for shooters, attendees must not be complacent.
A number of places of worship have been targeted in the last several years, including a Sikh temple in Wisconsin in 2012, an African-American church in South Carolina in 2015, a mosque in Quebec City, Canada, in 2015, a Baptist church in Texas in 2017, and a Jewish synagogue in Pennsylvania last October.
On Easter Sunday, at least 350 people, including Christians at Easter services in churches, in Sri Lanka were killed by mass suicide bombings.
These incidents, as well as arson fires and other threats on mosques nationwide have Muslim communities on edge.
“Obviously recent events have changed everything — maybe for the good — not just for the Muslim community but for any minority group anywhere,’” said Zulfie Khan, president of Al-Aqsa Community Center, the Plainfield mosque.
Khan said one of the main challenges leaders face is getting congregants to understand that sacred spaces are now targets of violence, and there is a need to be vigilant and prepared.
Will County Sheriff‘s Sgt. James Burnette was invited to speak to congregants at Al-Aqsa Easter Sunday. Burnette told those present they must be “aware of what is going on around them (and) know what is normal and not normal.”
Burnette also said he will tell deputies to make more frequent patrols of the mosques that come under their purview during upcoming nightly Ramadan prayers.
Despite these security concerns, Sarfaraz and Khan said that now more than ever mosques must continue interfaith efforts, such as “Open Mosque Day.”
Al-Aqsa will host its annual iftar – a dinner for breaking fast during Ramadan — on May 17, but with increased security.
“These are important steps to reach out to our brothers and sisters in other faiths, neighbors, and colleagues,” Khan said.
Basalath said that in the aftermath of the New Zealand mass murders, members of local churches and village officials attended a Friday prayer to show support and solidarity.
“We have built new relationships with the churches and the village,” he said.
To return this show of kindness, Basalath and other members of the Bolingbrook and Plainfield mosques plan to visit area churches this Sunday with flowers and condolences for the killings of Christians in Sri Lanka.