Gauteng hostage drama church claims assailants were disguised as police officers and ‘armed to the teeth’

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PRETORIA, July – A group of about 50 assailants who sparked a hostage drama which left five people dead when they forcefully entered the feud-ravaged International Pentecostal Holiness Church (IPHC) in Zuurbekom, west of Johannesburg, in the early hours of Saturday were disguised as police officers, the church claimed on Saturday evening.

The group of men, allegedly led by a representative of a church faction and “armed to the teeth with pistols, rifles, [and] crowd disperser pump rifles”, forcefully entered the IPHC’s headquarters compound at about 2.30am, the church said in a statement issued by its secretary of council Mpho Makwana.

“These were [subsequently] seized by the South African Police Service [SAPS] and the hitmen were apprehended.”

Makwana said eyewitnesses at the church, including security officers, had stated that the assailants were led by a former member of the vast church and disguised as police officers. Their convoy was led by a BMW 3 series car flanked by two Toyota Quantum minibuses. Upon being denied entry to the premises, they “circled around to another entrance created for trucks and suppliers where they gained access”.

“Because they were led by a former [church] member who knows the premises, they were able to enter forcefully through the south gate entrance.” There had been similar attacks in the past, Makwana said.

The well known church, which boasts a three-million strong membership, has been engulfed in a three-way conflict to succeed Glayton Modise who died in 2016 and who had “inherited” the church from his father and founder “comforter” Frederick in 1998. There has been bitter conflict between the three main contenders – Glayton Modise’s two sons Frederick Leonard Goitsemang and Tshepiso, and Michael Sandlana, reportedly Modise’s son out of wedlock – to take over the reins of the church.

“The modus operandi utilised was similar to the one utilised when his grace the comforter’s property in Pienaarsrivier (Kanana) was seized in January 2020 through violent deployment of hitmen. A similar strategy was deployed in Blaauwberg in May 2019 on the occasion of the IPHC’s Mt Zion pilgrimage,” said Makwana.

Makwana is with the main church, led by Leonard Modise and based at the headquarters church in Zuurbekom. The other two contenders run different church branches elsewhere.

IPHC “priest” Abiel Wessie, convener of the church council executive committee, said the attack was an “abomination”. “The church is a spiritual place of hope and healing …acts of this nature committed in the name of spirituality are despicable and have to be condemned for the abomination that they are,” he said.

The church premises at Zuurbekom had been closed since the start of the coronavirus (Covid-19) nationwide lockdown in March.

Earlier on Saturday, SAPS National Commissioner Lt-Gen Khehla John Sitole said in a statement that four people were found shot and burnt to death in a car, while a fifth victim, a security guard, was also fatally shot in his car while he was apparently attending to the complaint.

Police arrested over 40 suspects, including six people who had been taken to hospital. Among those arrested were members of the SAPS, SA National Defence Force (SANDF), Johannesburg Metro Police Department (JMPD), and the correctional services department. Over 34 firearms, including five rifles, 16 shotguns, and 13 pistols had been seized.

The crime scene was still being processed on Saturday and the number of arrests and firearms seized may fluctuate as the SAPS special task force, tactical response team, and visible policing officers continued to search the church compound. These units had also rescued men, women, and children who were said to be living in the compound and being held hostage.

Sitole praised the Gauteng SAPS management and officers for their prompt response to the incident. “I am certain that the speedy response by the 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.

“I have embarked on a spiritual crime prevention concept which involves the participation of all religious denominations in the fight against crime. It is rather unfortunate that such an incident takes place during a time when South Africa is being plagued by a deadly virus [Covid-19] and violent crimes,” Sitole said.

In November 2018, a shoot-out between feuding factions of the church left three people wounded outside the church in Zuurbekom. In 2017, the warring factions went to court over claims that more than R110 million was missing from the church coffers.

– African News Agency (ANA)