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With violence motivated by hate on the rise, U.S. Attorney, FBI and DHS meet with R.I. religious leaders

Faith leaders gathered to hear how a Justice Dept. initiative aims to enhance efforts to combat unlawful acts of hate: Improving reporting, increasing law enforcement training, community outreach, and civil enforcement

US Attorney Zachary A. Cunha speaks to Globe Rhode Island during the Rhode Island Report podcast earlier this month.Carlos Muñoz

PROVIDENCE — The Diocese of Providence says it’s been on high alert since the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade has made the Catholic Church a “lightning rod” on social media. In the past, some churches have been vandalized, sprayed with graffiti, and had locks glued shut.

A rabbi in Cranston said the mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018 has made his community fearful that they could be targets, so they refrain from wearing anything that shows they are Jewish.

A leader in the Muslim community said that a landlord in Warwick refused to rent to them during the pandemic when they said they intended to use the space for small gatherings and prayer. Another said a man entered into their mosque in South Providence and wandered around, making them nervous.


During a meeting Thursday organized by US Attorney Zachary Cunha that included law enforcement, the FBI, and the Department of Homeland Security, leaders of different faiths across Rhode Island voiced similar concerns about discrimination, hate crimes, and incidents of hate. They want their congregants to feel safe, and they don’t want to close their doors to people in need, but they needed to know what to do.

The US Department of Justice has launched a national initiative, United Against Hate, for each US Attorney’s office, to work with their communities on increasing awareness of hate crimes and how to report them. The federal authorities hope to enhance their efforts to combat unlawful acts of hate by improving reporting, reaching out to communities, increasing training of law enforcement, and also using civil enforcement.

Cunha said he plans to hold meetings for young people and other community groups, to address the need for awareness.

Over the past decade, Cunha said, the FBI estimated that 55 percent of hate crimes go unreported.


“We all know we live in a time when outpourings of vitriolic hatred have become regrettably common. Violence motivated by hatred is similarly on the rise,” Cunha told the dozens of faith leaders at the meeting in Bishop McVinney Auditorium. “Those incidents, both the ones that make headlines and the ones that simply ripple through the communities, carry a terrible price. ... The effect of hate crimes is felt across communities in our state and hundreds of miles away, as individuals wonder if it can happen to their communities.”

Assistant US Attorney Amy R. Romero, who works on civil rights matters, and David Neill, the US Attorney’s coordinator for violent crime prevention and community outreach, explained the statutes of hate crimes and described different scenarios — each ending with the same advice. “If it’s hateful or scary, report it,” Romero said. Even if something happens that appears small and not something to be prosecuted, it could be connected to other incidents, or be a precursor for an escalation, she said.

That was met with relief from some, who invited the US attorney’s office to their places of worship. “People are reluctant to come to places of worship because of security,” said a leader from the Muslim Community Center in Providence. “Places of worship are a place for succor, where people can go when they want some answers to some questions, but in these days, we don’t want to shut our doors on people who want to come. When people like you come to our places of worship, it sends a message that we are safe.”


Rabbi Jeffrey W. Goldwasser of Temple Sinai in Cranston said that while he’s been aware of just a few antisemitic actions in Rhode Island — painted swastikas and headstones knocked over in Jewish cemeteries, he wondered whether people were reluctant to report. “There’s a feeling in the Jewish community that antisemitism isn’t taken very seriously compared to other forms of hatred, even though its so prevalent,” Goldwasser said. “I think that’s part of the reason why Jews tend to be less inclined to report incidents, because of a fear that they won’t be taken very seriously.”

While several said they had good relationships with their local police force, one priest said they should also consider relying on each other.

“I think with many people, there’s a resistance to report things, there’s a certain kind of secrecy. I know in Woonsocket, there’s a very, very heavy culture of secrecy. People often times think that nobody is going to care about me,” said the Rev. Daniel J. Sweet, pastor of Holy Trinity Parish in Woonsocket. “We should stand together and say, No, we do care about one another. As faith-based leaders, we should make it clear we do stand together with our communities against hate.”

Amanda Milkovits can be reached at amanda.milkovits@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMilkovits.