'Our cries have fallen on deaf ears': church's leaders speak out after attack

12 July 2020 - 14:53
By Nonkululeko Njilo
Five people were killed in a hostage siege at the church in Zuurbekom on Saturday.
Image: Supplied Five people were killed in a hostage siege at the church in Zuurbekom on Saturday.

The leadership of the International Pentecostal Holiness Church in Zuurbekom — where congregants were held hostage and five people were murdered — has broken its silence over the events leading to the latest attack, blaming law enforcement officials for a lack of arrests.

Chairperson of the church's executive council Abiel Wessie addressed members of the media on Sunday. He revealed that the church has, in recent months, been under siege by assailants allegedly led by a former member of the church.

Wessie said there had been an ongoing leadership battle dating back to 2015 when the then leader died.

“As a church we strongly condemn what happened yesterday. Our 'comforter' [church leader Leonard Modise] is absolutely disappointed and dismayed by what happened. We are a church, we observe religious principles. We are peaceful church, we have a history dating back from 1962. There was never an incident of this nature until recently when this splinter group started what they are doing.

“This matter is before the high court. They are impatient to wait for the due process of the law to unfold. They have decided to take the law into their hands,” he said.

Wessie said the church had turned to law enforcement agencies each time it came under attack but with no luck.

“Every time we cry to our law enforcement agencies, our cry has ended on deaf ears, unfortunately,” he said.

Wessie said the church had been attacked three times since last year.

He said the latest attack had taken place when congregants were sleeping.

“Our church was under siege yesterday, by the faction, the splinter group. They came in, they forcefully wanted to take over the church. They came in fully armed.

“They managed to get access. Others went through the back gate and they started harassing the church members who were asleep at the time,” he said.

The armed group allegedly broke windows and doors at the premises and started assaulting congregants.

In June last year, the church said it had dispatched a bus full of staff members to prepare for its annual pilgrimage to Cape Town, and were attacked.

“When they heard that our people were there preparing, they booked flights, went to Cape Town, fully armed also, went up to the mountain, got through back doors as they are used to. They destabilised the whole process, they attacked, assaulted people and as a result of that, we lost a member who was beaten to death,” he said.

The church was also attacked sometime in October. Property was taken and the attackers started shooting randomly on arrival at the premises.

“This is their modus operandi, we are not even surprised. Here at Zuurbekom, this is the third attempt to overthrow and forcefully take over.”

Wessie said attempts to have people arrested had been unsuccessful.  

“After we realised were not getting any joy from our local [police] stations, we reported several cases. I can count up to 40 cases that have been opened, cases of assault, assault GBH, housebreaking, trespassing, theft of properties ...

“We resolved to take this matter to the highest level of the SAPS. I must state categorically that, despite all those efforts, our pleas, prayers ended on deaf ears,” he said.  

Wessie said about 10 people had been killed in similar attacks.

“That one of yesterday is very regrettable because one life lost is one life too many. If we count the number of lives since the leadership battle ensued, I am counting up to nine and even 10,” he said.  

The church leaders have since called on the government to intervene in the matter to avoid further bloodshed.

National police spokesperson Brig Vishnu Naidoo said 46 suspects, including six people who have been taken to hospital under police guard, had since been arrested.

He said the church, which has been declared a crime scene, was processed by the forensic experts after the Special Task Force, Tactical Reponse Team and Visible Policing members rescued a number of people who were said to have been held hostage within the compound.

National police commissioner Gen Khehla John Sitole praised police officers for their prompt response to the attack

“I am certain that the speedy response by the joint security forces has averted what could have been a more severe bloodbath.

“I have tasked the provincial management to finalise its preliminary investigations in the quickest possible time and ensure that the 72-hour Activation Plan is mobilised to bring to book all those responsible for this attack,” added  Sitole.