Under the UN ‘Global Programme on Countering Terrorist Threats against Vulnerable Targets‘, a new initiative of the ‘Global Network of Experts on Vulnerable Targets Protection’ is being launched- a series of online briefings that will address key topics related to vulnerable targets, including critical infrastructure and public spaces or ‘soft targets’ protection.

The first of these online briefings focused on “Security by Design for Protecting Places of Worship” and was held online on 12 May 2022. The event was co-hosted by the United Nations Office of Counter-Terrorism (UNOCT) and the UN Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC), and featured a roundtable of experts from the SOAR project (“Strengthening the security and resilience of at-risk religious sites and communities”).

I – Background

Attacks on religious sites continue to take place all over the world targeting worshippers, as well as their beliefs, identities, histories and dignity.

Approaches to physical security measures for religious sites vary significantly depending on a religious community, its set-up and location in a city landscape, as well as historical, cultural and theological context. An overarching challenge for all religious sites is to reconcile the security arrangements with the need for these public places to remain open.

A first step in preventing attacks against religious sites is to conduct risk and vulnerability assessments as a regular dynamic exercise based on information from all relevant actors, both public and private. The evolving nature of the terrorist threat landscape requires regular adjustments to security plans and review of previous assumptions.

One of the good practices to achieve the right balance between security and openness is “Security by Design,” a concept used in some countries and regions as an integral element of a comprehensive security approach for public places, including religious sites and places of worship. The “security by design” approach envisages considering security aspects within the design and planning of a public space, such as premises of a faith-based organization. These include integration of risks and vulnerability assessments since the early stages of the design of site’s exterior and interior while considering the harmonious application of protective measures.

This concept has proved its efficiency to ensure not only the physical security of both the place
and visitors but also that people feel comfortable and safe in a religious community.

II – Expert briefing


The expert roundtable on “Security by Design for Protecting Places of Worship” was co-hosted by the United Nations Office of Counter-Terrorism (UNOCT) and the UN Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC) under the UN Global Programme on Countering Terrorist Threats against Vulnerable Targets, and featured a roundtable of experts from the EU SOAR project (“Strengthening the security and resilience of at-risk religious sites and communities”).

The United Nations Global Programme on Countering Terrorist Threats against Vulnerable Targets is a multi-year endeavour implemented by UNOCT in partnership with the CounterTerrorism Committee Executive Directorate (CTED), UNAOC, the United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute (UNICRI) and in collaboration with INTERPOL. The programme seeks to strengthen Member States capacity to prevent, protect, mitigate (impact), investigate, respond to and recover from terrorist attacks against vulnerable targets at the national, regional and global levels. The programme assists beneficiary Member States to improve security and protection of their particularly vulnerable places through a balanced and comprehensive approach, in line with the Member State’s requests and based on the level of preparedness and national priorities. The programme mandate covers the protection of both critical infrastructure and “soft” targets as most vulnerable places, including religious sites and places of worship.

The expert discussion will contribute to the implementation of the the United Nations Plan of Action for Safeguarding Religious Sites, developed by UNAOC in 2019, in the aftermath of the attacks on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. The Plan provides an action-oriented framework with recommendations to support relevant stakeholders, including Member States, religious leaders, civil society organizations, the news media, and social media platforms, in prevention, preparedness and response to attacks against places of worship and guaranteeing the safety of the faithful to worship in peace. More specifically, the Plan provides concrete recommendations on national frameworks, preparedness, response and resilience measures as well as collaboration between all relevant stakeholders to build trust and work collaboratively.

The SOAR Project, funded by the European Union, is implemented by Enhancing Faith Institutions (EFI) in partnership with Finn Church Aid (FCA) and Architects’ Council of Europe (ACE), and supported by the UNOAC. The programme aims to advance the protection and safeguarding of places for worship in seven pilot countries across Europe (i.e. France, Germany, Belgium, Austria, Hungary, Netherlands and Denmark). A key component of the programme is to advance the protection of religious sites by implementing a ‘security by design’ concept. The deliverables of the programme include providing training, guidance and resources to at-risk religious sites and communities across Europe.


“Security by design” requires consolidated actions of architects, urban designers and planners, engineers, representatives of Faith-Based Organizations (FBOs) and religious communities, social planners, law enforcement and terrorism risk mitigation experts. Security-by-design is based on two approaches. The first approach relies on “hard” security measures such as gates, metal detectors, cameras and armed visible policing who filter site access. Visible security measures also convey a message both to visitors and potential perpetrators that a place is under protection. The second approach reflects embedding security arrangements into a site design without making them noticeable for visitors. Both approaches have pros and cons and decisions as to which one to adopt may be influenced by objective constraints. For example, camouflaged security measures may be technically difficult or overly expensive to implement. Many religious sites were built centuries ago, long before imminent terrorist risks had even been identified.

The current trend is to opt for a combination of soft and hard measures based on the evaluation of terrorist threat levels, budget availability, location limitations and historical and cultural context while ensuring the open nature and accessibility of a public place. Whatever security approach is followed, the “security by design” concept can only be implemented as a multidisciplinary process.

The expert roundtable seeks to provide an opportunity for the discussion of the security by design concept for safeguarding religious sites against terrorist attacks. It included a presentation from the SOAR project followed by a “security by design” overview and its key principles, case studies and good practices. Participants were encouraged to exchange views on the application of the security of design concept and discuss innovative solutions.


Participants: Members of the Global Network of Experts on Vulnerable Targets

  • Opening session (10 min) with welcoming remarks by UNOCT, UNAOC and SOAR Project.
  • Panel – Moderator: UNAOC
    3 expert presentations with a focus on: (10 minutes each)
    o SOAR Project Overview;
    o Security by Design Concept and its key elements (e.g. vulnerability and risk
    assessments, interior and exterior design, innovative solutions for surveillance, access
    control, territorial security and management);
    o Presentation of 1-2 case studies.
  • Q&A and discussion (30 min)

To see SOAR’s Resources on Security By Design visit: https://soarproject.eu/resources/