US officials alert religious groups on antisemitism, Islamophobia threats

FILE PHOTO: FBI Director Wray testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S.

By Doina Chiacu

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The U.S. government issued security guidance for faith-based communities on Wednesday as the country faces a terrorism threat level so elevated it prompted the FBI director to say he sees "blinking lights everywhere."

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) recommendations are designed to protect against threats amid heightened antisemitism and Islamophobia since the Oct. 7 Hamas attack and subsequent Israeli military retaliation in Gaza.

The move comes as the U.S. is recording soaring levels of antisemitism and Islamophobia since the Israel-Hamas war began, with the Justice Department saying it was monitoring rising threats against Jews and Muslims.

The DHS guidelines describe practical steps faith-based groups can take to be alert to the threat environment and to respond with cost-effective protective measures.

Recommendations include developing a security plan, putting an individual or a committee in charge of security, completing risk assessment, coordinating with local community and identifying available resources.

FBI Director Christopher Wray told a Senate committee on Tuesday: "I've never seen a time where all the threats are so many different threats are all elevated, all at exactly the same time. That's what makes this environment that we're in now so fraught."

Asked if he saw blinking red warning lights, Wray responded, "I see blinking lights everywhere I turn."

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas amplified the message on Wednesday, saying DHS was working with the FBI and other agencies to share information with the private sector and general public, including steps they can take to mitigate threats, he said.

Mayorkas and Attorney General Merrick Garland spoke to faith leaders later in the day on ways to identify and prevent hate crimes and security threats. Both officials stressed the importance of community engagement with local leaders and law enforcement in prevention efforts.

"We are meeting today at a time when the fear so many communities are facing is palpable," Garland said in opening remarks.

He cited a sharp increase threats against Jewish, Muslim, Arab and Palestinian communities since Oct. 7 and said the Justice Department has no tolerance for such threats.

(Reporting by Doina Chiacu; Editing by Josie Kao)