Singapore churches step up security measures over Christmas period

Singapore churches step up security measures over Christmas period
St Andrew’s Cathedral, near City Hall, will be doubling the number of security officers during its eight services held this weekend to celebrate Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Photo: Ernest Chua/TODAY
Published: 9:58 PM, December 22, 2016
Updated: 11:11 AM, December 23, 2016

SINGAPORE — Following recent terror arrests in the region and the deadly truck rampage at a Christmas market in Berlin earlier this week, several churches in Singapore are stepping up protective measures for festive events in the next few days — such as conducting bag checks on churchgoers and visitors, hiring external security firms, and setting up dedicated committees to oversee security arrangements.

St Andrew’s Cathedral, for instance, will be doubling the number of security officers during its eight services held this weekend to celebrate Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Since the start of the month, the cathedral — Singapore’s largest — has also tightened its security protocols by making bag checks compulsory and putting up notices around the church to inform its congregation of the measures in place in light of the current security situation, said the church’s manager Kenneth Koh.

The church has also trained up volunteers to form a security team that will be the “eyes and ears on the ground” to spot any suspicious individuals and behaviour, Mr Koh said.

“We have been on high-alert mode,” he added. The church expects about 1,800 people to turn up at its services on Christmas Eve.

Elsewhere, a church in the Orchard area — which asked not to be named — has set up a security committee ahead of its Christmas service. The committee is headed by a deacon in the church and includes church members who work in the security industry. It has also engaged an external security firm.

“Random bag checks may be conducted as and when needed,” said the church’s pastor, adding that members have been informed of these measures.

In response to TODAY’s queries, National Council of Churches (NCCS) executive secretary Richard Chong said that many churches are stepping up on security for candlelight services this year, such as by installing closed-circuit television cameras and reminding church members on the importance of staying vigilant.

“In the wake of terrorist attacks…in recent weeks, our churches are conscious of the threat of terrorism….However, (they) are also conscious of the need to sensitively balance due diligence against causing undue anxiety to members or visitors with our security measures,” he said.

Apart from additional measures put in place for the festive period, churches said they have already been ramping up security in recent months.

For example, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese has set up an emergency response operation comprising former police officers and employees in the security industry to draw up standard operating procedures for the 33 churches under its charge. These churches have also formed emergency preparedness teams that will be trained by the authorities.

The first session - which was attended by 230 people - was conducted late last month by officers from the Singapore Police Force and the Ministry of Home Affairs. The Archdiocese also plans to work with the Singapore Civil Defence Force to equip church staff and volunteers with basic life-saving skills.

Apart from beefing up infrastructure security and getting church members and volunteers to be equipped with hard skills, the NCCS has also urged churches to establish rapport with religious leaders and the Inter-Racial and Religious Confidence Circles in their respective constituencies.

Mr Chong said: “In the event of a crisis, the solidarity and trust that has been established will augur well for all to send joint messages to dispel misinformation.”

On Monday night (Dec 19), a truck ploughed through Breitscheidplatz Christmas market in Berlin, killing 12 people and injuring nearly 50 others. In  the last fortnight, Indonesia’s police foiled two imminent terror attacks, including one that was to be staged on Christmas Day or New Year’s Eve. Malaysia’s Special Branch Counterterrorism unit also arrested several people in separate raids in recent weeks. 

Terrorism experts noted that countries need to be extra vigilant during this period. 

S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) Associate Professor Alan Chong reiterated that Singapore’s vulnerability to terrorist threats is heightened as the festive season comes around. Terror attacks tend to be on the rise over the Christmas period due to its religious significance and because “targets are plentiful”, said Assoc Prof Chong, who specialises in security and international relations.

“Terrorists in the region can duplicate what has been done in other countries… Singapore is susceptible because of the volume of (visitor) traffic it receives during the holiday season. We definitely have to watch our levels of security in places of worship,” he said. “It is something that people who attend places of worship may not be so vigilant of.” 

RSIS research analyst Nur Diyanah Anwar noted that countries where Christmas is celebrated widely, including Singapore, must pay greater attention to security against the looming terror threat. “Security will definitely be enhanced in places of worship and major tourist spots over the Christmas weekend and into the new year. Singapore will be no exception,” she said.

In an advisory issued on Monday, the police said that in view of the large crowds expected during the festive period, especially on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, police and security officers — including personnel from the Protective Security Commands and Emergency Response Teams — will be deployed in the vicinity of Orchard Road and Gardens by the Bay. The police also urged the public to stay vigilant by looking after personal belongings, avoiding contact with unruly crowds, and reporting suspicious activities to the police.