COLUMBUS, Ind. – In one night, someone, possibly a Muslim extremist, or a group of vandals, spray-painted "Infidels!" and tagged Quranic verses on three Christian churches in the small city of Columbus, Indiana.
The vandals timed their activities so that Christian worshipers attending Sunday morning services on Aug. 31 would see the threatening graffiti as they arrived at church.
"People were upset that the church was defaced," said Father Doug Marcotte, associate pastor of St. Bartholomew Catholic parish in Columbus, one of the targeted churches.
"This has never happened before at our church or any other church in Columbus," Father Marcotte told Aleteia. "I wonder what’s the message? Is it someone who thinks we’re all infidels and wants to make sure we know that? Is it a nasty prank someone is pulling? Is it someone trying to incite people against Muslims?"
Ron Bridgewater, the senior minister at East Columbus Christian Church, which was also defaced, believes it is likely that young people trying to cause trouble are likely to blame.
"My feeling is this is probably some kids trying to get some people stirred up," Bridgewater told Aleteia.
The Columbus Police Department is investigating the vandalism, which also affected Lakeview Church of Christ. Authorities have not identified any suspects. Both local Christian and Muslim leaders told Aleteia that they hope the police will arrest those responsible for defacing the houses of worship.
"We hope whoever this is, that the police will be able to find out who they are and punish them accordingly," said Zulkifly Yusuf, president of the Islamic Society of Columbus, Indiana. Yusuf said that the church vandalism is not reflective of Islam.
"We denounce this action. This is not in line with our religious faith. We don’t believe in trying to vandalize other people’s property," said Yusuf, who also told Aleteia that his small congregation of 60 Muslim families has been active in interfaith activities with local Christian churches in recent years. He said the Muslim community has also invited Christians to the mosque to celebrate Eid al-Fitr, the feast that marks the end of Ramadan.
"No matter how hard some people try to stir up disharmony between Christians and Muslims, it will not deter us from trying to have a good relationship with everyone," Yusuf said.
Judging by the graffiti’s content, the vandals are either sending a frightening message or attempting to sow distrust and animosity between Columbus’ Christians and Muslims at a sensitive time when the world’s attention is focused on warfare in the Middle East, especially Israel’s offensive in Gaza and the Islamic State’s atrocities against Christians and other religious minorities in Iraq and Syria.
"With the news about ISIS, it makes people nervous and scared. People don’t know what to make of it," said Father Marcotte, who noted that the anti-Christian graffiti appeared on a Sunday where the Gospel reading focused on Christ telling his disciples to take up their cross and follow him, and that "whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it."
"The most important thing to remember is we Christians here in Columbus have gotten a little taste of what persecution is," Father Marcotte said. "It shocks us. It wakes us up. Hopefully, it reminds us that we need to lift up in prayer and do everything we can to support our brothers and sisters who are dealing with a lot more persecution than what happened to our church."
Besides spray-painting "Infidels!" on the churches, the vandals also wrote "Qur’an 3:151," a verse that refers to non-Muslims having their refuge in fire: "We will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieve for what they have associated with Allah of which He had not sent down [any] authority. And their refuge will be the Fire, and wretched is the residence of the wrongdoers."
According to local news reports, another verse – Qur’an 19:88 – was also spray-painted on the churches. That verse can be understood as attacking the Christian doctrine of Jesus Christ as the Son of God.
"These are the types of references that you often see on Muslim hate sites, trying to say that Islam is inherently violent. I find it very fishy that these would be spray-painted on a church," said Ibrahim Hooper, the communications director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
Hooper told Aleteia that he suspects someone trying to exploit international tensions likely defaced the churches.
"Obviously, we condemn the graffiti, whoever did it," Hooper said. "We’ve previously issued condemnations of targeting houses of worship. In the past, we’ve seen these incidents sometimes track with international events."
Bridgewater, the senior minister at East Columbus Christian Church, agreed with Hooper’s assessment.
"My opinion is these people were trying to capitalize on what’s going on in other parts of the world," he said. "With all the unrest in Israel and the Middle East, this is a great opportunity to freak some people out."
Dozens of published media accounts in recent years have reported incidents where churches, mosques and synagogues across the globe have been defaced. In September 2012, a mosque in Harrisonburg, Virginia was vandalized with graffiti, around the same that anti-American violence erupted in the Middle East over a vulgar anti-Muslim video on YouTube. Churches in Egypt and Israel have also been defaced by Jewish and Muslim extremists.
On Aug. 29, CAIR called on law enforcement authorities to investigate a possible anti-Muslim hate crime in Avon, Ind. – located about an hour north of Columbus – where a Moroccan woman wearing an Islamic head scarf was attacked from behind near a Walmart entrance. The suspect fled and has not been arrested. In 2011, a mosque in Michigan City, Ind., had two windows smashed by vandals.
In Columbus, Ind., members of the clergy said there have not been prior incidents of vandalism or recent tensions between the Muslim and Christian communities.
"If anything, the Muslim center here was very open and they were very quick to say that this was upsetting to them, and that this was not something they endorsed," said Father Marcotte, who added that several members of the Muslim community volunteered to help clean up the graffiti on St. Bartholomew Church. Bridgewater said the Muslim community also visited his church to offer their support.
"In my mind, I didn’t think it was them, but for them to come over and reach out to us was certainly reassuring and very comforting to me and to our congregation," Bridgewater said.
Yusuf said his small congregation is comprised of mainly professionals, many of whom work with Christians.
"I can’t imagine that any of these people would do that. These are law-abiding people. I’m surprised to see this kind of thing happen here, especially Columbus," Yusuf said. "We wanted to reach out to members of the Christian family. We share the same God. We condemn this action. We’d like to be more engaged with them in the future, and show what the vast majority of Muslims believe and that we are peace-loving people who don’t want to create any trouble."
Whether it was a Muslim extremist or young vandals, Bridgewater said his church follows Christ’s command in Matthew 5:44 to love and pray for one’s enemies and persecutors.
"It doesn’t really matter who did it," Bridgewater said. "The bottom line is we love them, we forgive them and we hope they don’t do it again."
Brian Fraga is a daily newspaper reporter who writes from Fall River, Massachusetts.