Hit, pulled and bottles flung: Interfaith delegation 'attacked' at Cape Town church while trying to mediate for refugees

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Bags piled up at the door to the Cape Town Central Methodist Church where foreign nationals are taking refuge. (Jenni Evans, News24)
Bags piled up at the door to the Cape Town Central Methodist Church where foreign nationals are taking refuge. (Jenni Evans, News24)

A delegation of interfaith leaders and an SA Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) commissioner were allegedly attacked inside the Cape Town Central Methodist Church on Friday as they tried to mediate an impasse with refugees and asylum seekers looking to leave the country.

"I got a knock on the head, and sprained my finger," the SAHRC's Chris Nissen told News24.

"They threw bottles and objects at us."

He said the church's Reverend Alan Storey and the Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town Bishop Thabo Makgoba were also assaulted and injured.

Nissen said peace monitor Rev Annie Kirke was also in the melee and was "shattered" by the turn of events.

Court order

This comes as the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria ordered refugees who were holding a sit-in in Pretoria near the UNHCR's offices to vacate their makeshift campsite.

Two neighbourhood associations applied for the court order which directed the refugees and asylum seekers to leave the campsite within three days.

Instead, they scaled the walls of the UNHCR in Pretoria and set up camp there.

The group in Cape Town began a parallel sit-in at Waldorf Arcade in St George's mall from October 8, but were forcibly removed by the SA Police Service and Law Enforcement earlier this month.

READ | Police start removing refugees from UNHCR building in Pretoria

Stun grenades and water cannons were used and over 100 people including children were taken into custody but were later released with no further communication on the matter by the police.

The police had been carrying out an eviction order on behalf of the building's managers.

The group walked up to the Central Methodist Church and have been living on the pews and floor since October 30.

However, matters started becoming fraught when they chased the relief organisation Gift of the Givers away because one of their directors said their demand to be relocated to a third country, and not their countries of origin, was unrealistic.

No feedback

They formed their own security at the entrances, limiting who may enter, and searched bags.

Nissen said that in the meantime, a group of intermediaries has been trying to find a solution.

He said that the UNHCR has said it does not take groups of people, but individuals and the mediators had been shuttling back and forth to help find a solution.

On Monday, the leaders at the church were expected to give feedback on available options, but failed to do so.

READ | SA can't force refugees on other countries, says Home Affairs dept

Another meeting was set for Friday, but during the meeting, one of the leaders allegedly turned on a pastor from Delft, whose name is not immediately available.

One of the refugee leaders allegedly "went for the pastor and as Alan tried to intervene they rushed us. They pulled us, they hit us," Nissen said.

"They hit the archbishop on the forehead and kept us for half an hour. We were held hostage."

He said a path was eventually made for the religious leaders to leave.

Nissen said the police were not involved, and he hoped that tempers would calm soon so that they could carry on with discussions.

The UNHCR has said previously that it could not take the hundreds of people to other countries.

According to its website, it recently started the first of a series of emergency transit measures to move refugees from Libya, to Rwanda, who agreed to host the groups of much smaller numbers.

On Thursday, Deputy Home Affairs Minister Njabulo Nzuza said on Thursday that South Africa could not force people on other countries.

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