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Refugees return to Johannesburg church after raid

A UMNS Report
By Linda Bloom*

Feb. 7, 2008

Bishop Paul Verryn

Only a small number of the refugees arrested in a police raid on Central Methodist Mission in Johannesburg, South Africa, remain in jail, according to the bishop there.

Thirteen people still were waiting for court appearances as of Feb. 7, Bishop Paul Verryn told United Methodist News Service. Verryn had been to the court that day as another person was released on bail.

During the past couple of years, Central Methodist Mission has served as a shelter and provided programs for hundreds of refugees, many of them from Zimbabwe. More than a thousand refugees were arrested during the Jan. 30 police raid. None released so far has been charged with a crime, the bishop said.

After the raid, Verryn criticized the 50 to 100 police officers involved for their lack of a search warrant and aggressive behavior, which he said resulted in damage to church property and physical abuse.

Since then, most of the refugees have returned to Central Methodist Mission, bringing the numbers sleeping nightly there back to about 1,200 inside and several hundred more in the streets surrounding the church. News coverage of the raid has attracted others who had not been to the mission before. "There are more people who’ve been coming in the evenings now," Verryn said. "The building does seem very full at the moment."

According to a Feb. 6 article in South Africa’s Mail & Guardian Online, a spokesperson for the South African Police Service called the raid part of a "sustainable crime-combat" operation aimed at criminal elements in the district. The article reported that the Independent Complaints Directorate has decided on its own initiative to investigate whether police officers who took part in the raid conducted themselves appropriately.

Cooperation needed

Earlier in the week, the bishop met with several police officials about the incident, and a second meeting is planned for Feb. 11.

"We’ve got to do something to cooperate with each other," Verryn said. He would like to set up some sort of reconciliation process that would include the police listening to some of the concerns of the refugee community, he added.

"We must use this as an opportunity for them (the police) to understand the alienation of human rights is a very, very serious crime," he declared.

Bishop Felton E. May, interim chief executive, United Methodist Board of Global Ministries, wrote to numerous South African church and political leaders expressing distress over the raid of Central Mission.

His appeal for assistance went to Archbishop Desmond Tutu, former South African President Nelson Mandela, current South African President Thebo Mvuyelwa Mbeki, Presiding Bishop Ivan M. Abrahams of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa, and the South African ambassadors to the United Nations and the United States.

The United Methodist Committee on Relief continues to support Central Methodist Mission. Donations to the church’s Ray of Hope project can be made through UMCOR Advance No. 199456, Zimbabwe Emergency, and dropped in local church collection plates or mailed directly to UMCOR at P.O. Box 9068, New York, N.Y. 10087-9068. Credit-card donations can be made online at http://secure.gbgm-umc.org/donations/advance/donate.cfm?code=982540&id=3019059 or by calling (800) 554-8583.

*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in New York.

News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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