'People are fearful for their lives, for their houses of worship' Men leave the Islamic Cultural Centre of New York under increased police security. Photo / AP A rabbi who packs a gun. A church installing security cameras. A police car protecting a mosque.

Houses of worship have traditionally been places of refuge where strangers are welcome. But high-profile attacks in recent years on an African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina, a synagogue in Pittsburgh and now mosques in Christchurch have made many worshippers and their prayer leaders rethink how protected sanctuaries really are.

"People are fearful for their lives, for their houses of worship, for the sanctuary of this mosque and other places of worship like the synagogues and African-American churches that are being attacked. People are concerned," said Imam Mohannad Hakeem while attending prayers at the Islamic Centre of Detroit.

He spoke after the horrifying attack in Christchurch left 50 people dead at two mosques.

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History shows sanctuaries are not immune from violence. In countries struggling with sectarian violence, attacks on houses of worship are much more frequent. But for countries at peace, the attacks are much rarer.

For many, houses of worship are sanctuaries where congregants bond with their shared sense of faith and community. The recent attacks have made some question whether houses of worship have turned into soft targets, losing some of their sense of sacredness.

In the parking lot of the Islamic Centre of Detroit, a watchful police officer sat in a squad car, keeping an eye out for any signs of potential trouble. Worshippers thanked the officer — offering him food, drinks, a handshake. Inside, Dearborn Police Chief Ronald Haddad greeted congregants with handshakes and hugs. Dearborn is a Detroit suburb with a large Arab and Muslim population.

A woman and her child leave the Islamic Cultural Center of New York under increased police security following the shooting in New Zealand. Photo / AP
A woman and her child leave the Islamic Cultural Center of New York under increased police security following the shooting in New Zealand. Photo / AP

Haddad said he doesn't know if houses of worship are more of a target today than in previous times. "Given what happened in New Zealand, we want to make sure that our community feels safe and secure," he said.

In Chicago, the Muslim Community Centre and the Downtown Islamic Centre increased security during prayers. Several armed police officers stood guard outside and inside throughout the afternoon service.

Dana Al-Qadi, 29, an engineer, was committed to attending after the attacks but said doing so brings her a feeling of peace mixed with fear.

"People are their most vulnerable when they're at the masjid (mosque). It's where they bring their worries, their weaknesses, and try to speak to God. They're in such a vulnerable state of mind and spirit. In that moment, someone decided to be such a transgressor. That brings me so much sadness."

For many in the Jewish community, last year's synagogue shooting attack in Pittsburgh, in which 11 died, sparked a similar sense of vulnerability.

After the attack, Rabbi Yaakov Zucker of Chabad Jewish Centre in the small town of Key West started going to target practice along with a handful of congregants. "We pray on one hand, but we're also armed on the other hand, not in a vigilante way ... I hope I'll never have to use it, but I am ready for any threat that enters my temple." He fears copycats after the Christchurch attacks.

Churches struggled with similar challenges after the June 17, 2015 shooting in Charleston in which a white supremacist killed nine parishioners.

Men leave the Islamic Cultural Centre of New York under increased police security. Photo / AP
Men leave the Islamic Cultural Centre of New York under increased police security. Photo / AP

Jamaal Weathersby, the pastor at New Hope Baptist Church in New Orleans, said the attack was a turning point. His church has eight or nine doors, he said, but now people are only allowed through one entrance for services. Security cameras were installed and security agents will be hired for an upcoming revival.

- AP