At least four people were shot and burnt to death while another was fatally shot at a Pentecostal megachurch that has more than a million members after gunmen stormed its headquarters near Johannesburg and allegedly held about 200 congregants, including women and children, at ransom for hours.
An armed group, allegedly sent by a church faction, launched the attack at the International Pentecostal Holiness Church in the town of Zuurbekom in the Gauteng province on the outskirts of Johannesburg at 3 a.m. local time on Saturday, according to South Africa’s Eye Witness newspaper.
“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 this complaint,” National Commissioner of Police General Khehla John Sitole said, according to IOL.
Police arrested at least 40 people, including officials from the South African police, the National Defense Force, the Johannesburg Metro Police and the Department of Correctional Services. Police also seized dozens of weapons, including five rifles, 16 shotguns and 13 pistols, according to i24 News.
“The crime scene is still being processed and the figures of arrests and firearms seized may fluctuate as the Special Task Force, Tactical Response Team and Visible Policing members continue to comb the compound," Sitole said. "These Units have also rescued men women and children who are said to be living in the compound and were being held hostage.”
A power struggle over the church’s leadership began after its founder, Comforter Glayton Modise, died in 2016. Church spokesperson Abiel Wessie said that a faction from the church’s Jerusalem branch was behind the attack.
“They came in and forcefully wanted to take over the church,” Wessie told media. “They came in and bulldozed the entrance. They used their bakkie to get through a gate that was locked. They managed to get access and others came through the back gate. They started to harass church members who were asleep at the time.”
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In November 2018, at least three people were injured in a shootout between the church’s feuding factions outside the headquarters in Zuurbekom.
In 2017, local newspapers reported that a church faction went to court saying about 110 million rands ($6.5 million) had gone missing.
“We’ve arrested all those we reasonably believed are suspects. They have been [taken] in for questioning,” police spokesperson Vish Naidoo told BBC.
Sitole said, “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 and violent crimes.”