Death threats against bishop supporting Zimbabwean refugees

By Ecumenical News International
April 14, 2009

He has received several death threats and has been under guard by South African police, but that will not stop Bishop Paul Verryn of Johannesburg's Central Methodist Church from sheltering Zimbabwean refugees in the heart of the country's commercial capital - writes Hans Pienaar.

Verryn has been used to controversy since he began living in Soweto in the early 1980s, then one of only a handful of whites with homes in the huge conurbation of black dormitory towns instituted under the rule of apartheid.

Whether it is care-giving for refugees or finding shelter for outcasts of government policies across southern Africa, he has weathered many onslaughts. These have included vociferous condemnation by apartheid theologians, police raids and smear campaigns. The most recent attacks came from government lawmakers in the post-Nelson Mandela parliament and other officials over his sheltering of Zimbabwean refugees.

One set of adversaries who used to castigate him have officially changed their stance. The leaders of the Nederduits Gereformeerde Kerk (Dutch Reformed Church), the biggest Afrikaans-speaking church that once supported the apartheid theology, released a statement praising Verryn for his work in aiding the refugees.

"The manner in which he and his congregation had availed their church building to sufferers and strangers, is an example and an inspiration to us," said NGK moderator, the Rev Kobus Gerber. "At the Central Methodist Church the Gospel of Jesus Christ is concretised in a special manner."

More than 2600 refugees, officially "tagged" with tokens in recent weeks, are awaiting relocation from Verryn's refuge headquarters in the centre of Johannesburg, but estimates say the same number live on the streets around the church.

This situation has heaped ire on the church from an assortment of local concerns, ranging from high-flying lawyers trying to keep a 28 million rand (US$3 million) advocate's chambers viable, to lowly shopkeepers complaining about the effects of destitute Zimbabweans on their business flows.

Two men arrested on 7 April 2009 in a police sting operation when they went to visit Verryn in his office after he had received several death threats, claimed they had been paid 30,000 rand (US$2900) by unnamed shopkeepers to kill Verryn. The purpose of their visit was, however, to try to get a larger sum from Verryn, police said.

Verryn himself believed those arrested were opportunists out to extort money.

The bishop was born in Pretoria in 1952 and after doing his compulsory military service - which he says he hated with a passion ­- he worked at a panel-beating shop and joined the Methodist church at 20 in order to gain "life experience".

He moved around South Africa's Eastern Cape province for several years, graduating in theology from Rhodes University before being ordained in 1978 at the age of 26 in East London.

"I had this sense of the journey being accomplished," Verryn said. From there he left for the gold mining area of West Rand on the central Highveld, and on to Soweto, which was still in turmoil after the 16 June 1976 uprising by black school children against the inferior education system and the Afrikaans language imposed by the apartheid system.

The presiding Methodist bishop at the time, the Rev Peter Storey, himself an anti-apartheid icon, says, "Paul won the hearts of the Soweto community through his identification with their struggle during the worst years of apartheid." For his counterparts in the apartheid churches he was the reincarnation of the "evils" of liberation theology.

But Verryn was also in the forefront of behind-the-scenes efforts to curb the excesses of Winnie Mandela, then wife of the still incarcerated Nelson Mandela. Her bogus "soccer club" had embarked on a reign of terror against suspected apartheid informers. Five boys, hiding in Veryyn's manse after being severely interrogated, were abducted.

One, Stompie Seipei, aged 14, died, and at South Africa's post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the 1990s Verryn broke down in tears when he confessed the guilt he felt for not having had removed the boys to safety.

In the following years, his Central Methodist Church - named for an enormous district stretching over several provinces and covering about 14,000 square kilometres ­- became renowned for its open-door policy towards refugees. When Zimbabwe began imploding in 2000 under President Robert Mugabe, a steady stream of people began to make their way to South Africa.

Verryn's church became a focal point for anti-Mugabe activities. Verryn himself became an outspoken critic of the regime of Mugabe's Zanu-PF party. For his efforts, he was hauled before a South African parliamentary committee in 2008, and accused by member of the ruling African National Congress party of "betraying the liberation struggle".

Earlier in 2009, more officials condemned Verryn for giving shelter to Zimbabweans. Many ANC politicians support Mugabe as a liberation struggle icon and many favour his land-grab policies. Such people say the likes of Verryn are sabotaging their efforts to "transform" southern Africa.

Now Verryn has the unlikely support of their former apartheid enemies, who vowed to continue to support him and pray for him in his efforts to aid the indigent.

And he has support from further afield. The Nigerian newspaper This Day wrote in an editorial comment on 28 March, "Many of his church members who believe that Bishop Verryn has stretched his hand of charity too wide, have reportedly left the church. The bishop may have lost some of his flock, but one thing he has clearly not lost is focus. He is consoled by the fact opening the church doors is what the founder of the Christian church would have done in similar circumstances."

[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Conference of European Churches.]

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