Thousands of Muslims gathered at the Prime Osborn Convention Center in Jacksonville Tuesday to close out the month of Ramadan with Eid al-Fitr prayers, known as the “Festival of Breaking the Fast.”
This year’s eid celebrations have had greater security following the massacre of 51 people at two mosques in New Zealand by a gunman. People are concerned that they may be the next targets, said Wolfson Children’s Hospital nurse Aleya Byrd.
“We pray to God that’s not the case and you don’t want your children to grow up with that fear either,” she said. “I didn’t have that growing up, so it is kind of a sadder part to see generations now have to be more scared to go to their place of worship.”
Byrd grew up in Jacksonville and frequented the Islamic Center of Northeast Florida (ICNEF), the city’s oldest and largest mosque. She said the threats to the mosque have had ebbs and flows in the past few decades, but it’s recently gotten worse.
Officers now stand guard during big events. The mosque has also locked its gates, increased the number of security cameras and lights, and trained 10 to 12 security officers to patrol the premises, according to ICNEF board member Mobeen Rathore.
“It’s unfortunately, in this day and age, it’s the cost of business, if you will,” said Rathore.
There are about seven mosques in Jacksonville and all are having to upgrade their security, said Rathore.
But it’s not just mosques that have had to beef up their security. Chabad at the Beaches is raising funds to enhance its security. Neil Rashba, Chair of the Ponte Vedra synagogue’s Security Committee, said an April shooting at a similar Chabad in California prompted them to take action.
“So at that point, we decided to start imagining it, if it could happen here. We don’t like to think of ourselves as fearful, certainly not fearful. But just normal precaution,” he said.
The small congregation, which has 60 to 80 regular attendees, is getting an armed deputy to patrol the synagogue. It’s also hardened the doors and improved cameras, according to Rashba.
The security concerns ICNEF and Chabad at the Beaches are dealing with is a trend that congregations through the country are having to address.
A study from California State University, San Bernardino found that reported hate crimes are up by nearly 13 percent in the country’s 10 largest cities.
Rashba said he’s concerned about places of worship being attacked. The first one that caught his attention was the the 2015 shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., where nine African American parishioners were killed by a gunman. And for Rathore, the 2018 Tree of Life synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh, Pa., which left 11 dead.
“It was such a blatant, heinous, horrific thing, that we just had to step up,” he said. “I think most religious institutions are doing that.”
Jacksonville has had close calls with similar attacks. In 2011, a Jacksonville man attempted to bomb the ICNEF and in 2017, a 69-year-old man planned a mass shooting at the mosque, but it was foiled by law enforcement.
But Rashba is optimistic about the future. He said people often forget that there was much more political violence in the 1970s.
“I am hopeful that at some point, the world will calm down and we’ll go back to more peaceful times in the not too distant future,” he said.
Contact Abukar Adan at 904-358-6319, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @abukaradan17