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August 12, 2013

Protecting the flock from gun violence

It was a Saturday morning and the Rev. Jaman Iseminger had just dropped by to help some volunteers as they cleaned up the cemetery next door to the Bethel Community Church in Southport, south of Indianapolis.

Then a homeless woman entered the church and confronted him. She pulled a gun and killed the 29-year-old pastor, leaving behind a wife and a 2-year-old daughter.

"There are all kinds of tragic details ... but here's what's really haunting about that case," said Jimmy Meeks, a Hurst, Texas, patrolman who is also a licensed Southern Baptist preacher. "When they looked on his desk they discovered that his sermon that Sunday was going to be about the rising number of pastors around the world who were dying for their faith. There's no way he could have known that he was next in line."

The numbers are starting to add up, so much so that the bloodshed in religious sanctuaries is beginning to get attention from religious and government leaders, if not from national news media.

The pivotal year was 1999, when a gunman killed seven people and wounded seven more during a youth service at Wedgewood Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas. Since then, at least 441 people have died violent deaths in American churches, said Meeks, one of several experts who have kept track of police reports since the Wedgewood shooting. At least 151 people have been killed in Baptist churches since 1999, more than any other religious group.

At this point, Americans are more likely to be killed at church than in a school, said Meeks. The total for 2012 alone was 75 dead.

One reason the trend has stayed out the news, he said, is that the FBI defines a "mass shooting" as one claiming three or more victims. The violence in religious sanctuaries -- most of it linked to family disputes, mental illness or strife inside a small circle of people -- rarely hits that threshold. While there have been mass shootings in sanctuaries, that is not the norm. But the threat must be taken seriously.

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