On the last Friday of the year, 28 December 2018, three women were killed and nine left injured during a furor at Prophet Shepherd Bushiri’s Enlightened Christian Gathering (ECG) church in Pretoria. The deceased were identified as Patricia Pringane, Matshila Sarah Mohlala, and Lehlogahlo Maria Segodi.
Police spokesperson Augustinah Selepe said the tragedy happened when the congregants who had huddled for a church service at the mega-church pushed each other in a scramble to find shelter during a violent rainstorm on Friday evening.
“Our preliminary report indicates that the community assembled at the showground to attend the church service around 8 pm at Hall C. According to them, when the rain started the congregation started to push each other and a stampede occurred. Unfortunately, that led to three deaths and nine injuries,” Selepe said.
Police have since opened an inquest for investigation despite ECG’s legal representative Terence Baloyi saying the congregants had panicked during the thunderstorm, leading to the fatalities.
Prophet Bushiri and other church officials are reportedly facing a case of defeating the ends of justice and of interfering with police work. This is after it was alleged that they removed the bodies of deceased to a private mortuary in Pretoria West without notifying the responsible authorities of the accident.
Police slammed the church for not reporting the incident, with the police spokesperson Captain Kay Makhubela, saying;
“When this type of thing happens you either phone an ambulance or the police, so paramedics can check if they can resuscitate the person. If the person has died they certify the death.”
Cpt Makhubela stressed “only authorized people” were allowed to remove bodies, “not paramedics or a person from a private mortuary”.
As the state is hands-on trying to make a case against ECG church and its patron, SA National Civic Organisation (Sanco) has been organising marches and protests, calling for the ECG to be expelled from the Pretoria venue in the stampede’s wake.
The incessant mudslinging of the church by the civil organisation subsequently led the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights (CRL Rights Commission) to intervene, trying to mediate between the two parties.
On Monday, the Commission called a hearing into the incident. It brought to the testifying table the church, the SA National Civic Organisation (Sanco) and officials from the cities of Tshwane and Johannesburg.
In their first session, Prophet Bushiri apologized for the stampede.
“The ECG International Church would like to take this opportunity to reiterate its deepest apology to the South African people for the accident that happened at its Pretoria Branch. Despite being an accident, as a church we took and we always do take full responsibility for the incident and we are comforted and encouraged by the level of support from different South Africans from different parts of the divide.”
The cleric who is defending the legality of his church at the commission claimed that ECG Church is registered and governed by relevant authorities.
Supported by his wife Mary, attorney Terrence Baloyi and spokesperson Maynard Manyowa, Bushiri denied claims that his church removed the bodies of the three congregants who died.
“The church only came to know through the media that there was a case of bodies being moved from the church without the police and taken to the private mortuary.
We further learnt that the South African Police Service (Saps) had, based on that, opened a case of defeating the ends of justice against the church.
“It must be underlined here that the church left the management of the accident in the hands of the paramedics on the scene. From their report, there were only injuries at the scene of the incident — not deaths. The three died at the clinic as they were receiving treatment,”
Prophet Bushiri testified.
The prophet said the stampede happened at an overflow hall.
“It’s the people coming into that hall that caused the stampede, not people trying to get out,” he added.
The “Major 1”, as he’s affectionately called by his followers, said his church has had to deal with various rumours that he claims are false. He said there are rumours that the church sells the blood of Jesus and that they charge congregants money for him to pray for them or to sit near him during services.
“We are a victim of a lot of speculation… our church has suffered so much… we have been victimised as a church by faceless people on social media.
As a church, we will remain receptive to advise and constructive criticism at the same time working with every institution to ensure that we continue to serve the spiritual needs of our people in gatherings that are safe and secure,” the commission heard.
Other ECG church team testified that they do not make money from congregants but use the offerings to pay staff, rent, and other expenses.
The two-day commission talks are being held under the direction of the CRL (Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities) Rights Commission in Braamfontein, Johannesburg.
The CRL said the incident was followed by a number of claims, accusations, marches, demonstrations, and calls by Sanco for the church to be shut down.
“In an effort to help resolve this matter, the CRL Rights Commission called a mediation meeting on January 10 2019 between the Enlightened Christian Gathering Church and the South African National Civic Association,”
the CRL said.
During those deliberations, it was decided that all hostility towards the church would cease.
The commission said it would pursue negotiations with the church for possible support for the bereaved families and reiterated its call for the “full enforcement of the bylaws in the country”.
However, the CRL said there were some issues that still needed to be discussed.
“In its commitment to monitor the situation, the commission has continued to listen to all the parties, but unfortunately there have been several discrepancies in the information provided,”
the commission said in a statement.
The hearing continues on Tuesday.
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