/ 1 February 2008

Church leaders outraged at police raid

Church leaders expressed shock and outrage on Friday at a police raid this week on the Central Methodist Church in downtown Johannesburg, during which hundreds of immigrants were arrested.

Eddie Makue, general secretary of the South African Council of Churches, said for many years the Central Methodist Church had welcomed Zimbabweans and others who had been displaced by political conflict and economic turmoil in their own countries.

The police raid was an attack on the ”ministry of radical hospitality” that had long been pursued by the Central Methodist Church.

”The leaders heard that roughly 50 police officers forced their way into the church in the middle of the night without a warrant or any prior discussion with the church’s minister, Bishop Paul Verryn, or other church officials.

”Preliminary reports indicate that more than 1 000 people were taken into custody, including more than 200 women, a number of whom are pregnant.” he said.

Police conducted the raid at about midnight on Wednesday.

A wellness centre at the church, assisted by Médecins Sans Frontières, which attends to a wide range of residents’ needs, including HIV/Aids care, was reported to be vandalised and the staff on duty were detained.

Makue said church leaders were particularly disturbed to find that the action was taken without any attempt to engage the church, especially since church and municipal officials had for some time been exploring ways to cooperate to provide hospitality and services to refugees.

Anglican Bishop Peter Lee said mayor Amos Masondo had been very supportive and open to partnership with the churches.

”He has been clear that Johannesburg has always been a city of newcomers.”

Makue said there was a long Biblical tradition of the church acting as a place of sanctuary and refuge.

”In the apartheid era, we often were able to hide people in churches, because we knew that even the brutal apartheid police were reluctant to violate the sanctity of the church,” he recalled.

The police raid at the church was described as reminiscent of the ”worst excesses of the 1970s and 1980s”. — Sapa