Participants at a church-sponsored conference here on the rule of law are calling for a rethinking of the escalation of state-supported security measures. The calls come in response to reports pointing to the high cost of “securitization” and the increasing invasion of individual privacy through surveillance via social media and travel controls.

“Security measures are necessary for a well-functioning society,” says Elizabeth van der Heide of the Center for Terrorism and Counterterrorism in the Netherlands. However, the Dutch academic warns against the tendency of governments to “terrorize their flock” with exaggerated images of danger that are then used to justify high levels of electronic surveillance and suspension of laws guaranteeing the protection of human rights.

“Society does not become more secure through installing security gates but through a feeling of trust, social cohesion and personal fulfillment” van der Heide says.

Van der Heide made her comments in delivering an address to the “Churches and the Rule of Law” conference at the John Knox International Center here Oct. 28-30. The two-day event attracted 40 participants from churches and non-governmental organizations in Africa, North America and Europe.

“Is security the new religion?” Dietrich Werner of the World Council of Churches asked during debate. “Are we idolizing security?”

The German academic and theologian calls this a key contemporary concern for churches and says it is time to issue a declaration against the “religious connotation of security.”

Conference organizer, Douwe Visser of the World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC), notes the conference theme was chosen in response to growing recognition of the role played by churches in the development of legal safeguards against the abuse of power and the infringement of human rights imposed in the name of security.

“The objective was to inform churches about the role they can play in their local contexts in ensuring the rule of law,” says Visser. “It was also intended to present an opportunity for global organizations such as the World Communion of Reformed Churches and the World Council of Churches to set their agendas in response to the question of rights and the rule of law in the coming years.”

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is a member of both the WCRC and WCC.

Martin Robra of the WCC called on the ecumenical movement in general, and WCC in particular, to focus on the multiple and sometimes contradictory issues associated with the role churches can play in response to questions and concerns about how best to defend human rights at the same time as ensuring protection for the vulnerable in politically unstable countries.

Robra acknowledges this is a controversial issue among churches, with some defending the need for security measures imposed by force and others opting for non-violent intervention. However, he says he “cannot imagine a WCC of the future without a much stronger emphasis on international affairs and peace with justice.”

Visser says that WCRC will initiate further work with ecumenical partners such as the WCC on the issues raised by the conference. The John Knox International Centre will be publishing a report on the conference early in 2013. Drafts of the conference presentations are available at