South African Church Housing Refugees Faces Crisis

Of the millions of people who have fled turmoil in Zimbabwe, many have crossed the border to South Africa. Thousands have taken sanctuary in a single church, which is now at the center of a crisis. There have been allegations that in the chaos of the crowded building, abuses have occurred and minors have been sexually assaulted.

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Let's report, next, on an uncertain refuge from chaos. Millions of people have fled turmoil in Zimbabwe. Many crossed the border to South Africa; thousands have taken sanctuary in a single church, which is now at the center of a crisis. Here's NPR's Charlayne Hunter-Gault.

(Soundbite of singing)

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: This may sound like any other church service in South Africa, including this Bible verse from Matthew, read during the service: Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest. But this verse has special meaning to these worshippers.

CHURCH CONGREGATION: (Foreign language spoken)

HUNTER-GAULT: This congregation at Johannesburg Downtown Central Methodist Church is more heavy-laden than most, for they are part of a group of some 3,000 men, women and children, most of whom escaped in recent years from neighboring Zimbabwe, for either economic or political reasons.

But their crowded existence here has come at a price that might astound even the prophet Matthew. The scene throughout this church is downright Dickensian. Everywhere in this three-story building, people crowd into whatever spaces they can find to lay their heads. In a corner on the third floor, I come upon three men with disabilities, their meager possessions stuffed into plastic bags piled high against the wall.

THOMAS: (Foreign language spoken)

HUNTER-GAULT: No food, no money, says a 21-year-old named Thomas. Next to him, Martin Sebani(ph) - 35 years old, with a hunchback and small limbs. He tells me he and his corner mates have been living like this for two years.

Mr. MARTIN SEBANI: There's no comfort, you know. We just sleep on the floor. So, it's too painful for us. So we just sleep. Not enough blankets or whatever. But you can see it's much better than staying outside.

HUNTER-GAULT: Down darkened stairwells and into an even darker basement, men and women are mingling in the hallway between their separate living spaces. There I meet 29-year-old Evans Cuntandre(ph). He says he had to flee Zimbabwe because he'd been working underground for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change during the 2008 presidential campaign and risked being targeted by government militias.

Mr. EVANS CUNTANDRE: Some of my guys were killed. I had to leave very fast or I might be next.

HUNTER-GAULT: Although no one can say for sure, there are estimates that between three and six million Zimbabweans have fled to South Africa in recent years as political battles turned violent and mismanagement drove the economy to ruin.

(Soundbite of people chattering)

HUNTER-GAULT: In a women's room in the church, I find women of all ages lying around on blankets, some with small children crawling near them. Most turn away from me, covering their faces with their hands. A woman is washing clothes in a small pot. Wet clothes hang around the room. In the middle of the room, pots boil on a makeshift stove that looks like a fire hazard. The air is almost too heavy to breathe.

(Soundbite of baby crying)

HUNTER-GAULT: Abigail Shebani(ph) says she fled from Zimbabwe with her husband, just in time.

Ms. ABIGAIL SHEBANI: I just get there and give the baby.

HUNTER-GAULT: Soon as you got here?

Ms. SHEBANI: Yeah.

HUNTER-GAULT: You had the baby here in the church? How hard was that?

Ms. SHEBANI: It was hard.

HUNTER-GAULT: Shebani was lucky - a nurse was there to help her. But some of the women have given birth alone in one of the seven fetid toilets serving over 3,000 people.

Bishop PAUL VERRYN (Pastor): How are you, (unintelligible)? I'm well.

HUNTER-GAULT: Bishop Paul Verryn is the pastor here, and I find him on the phone trying to help still another immigrant. He's sitting at a desk piled high with papers in an office cluttered with boxes of soap. A slim man of medium build and height with graying blonde hair, he has spent his pastoral life reaching out to the poor and heavy laden - none, in his view, more deserving of support and a place of safety than the thousands here now.

Mr. VERRYN: Many of them come, traumatized, ranging from not being able to support their families because of an economic collapse or the most severe kind of torture.

HUNTER-GAULT: But even as he has tried to care for the traumatized, there have been allegations that in the chaos of the crowded building, abuses have occurred and minors have been sexually assaulted. The government intervened a few weeks ago and removed more than 50 unaccompanied minors, but many remain.

Local government health authorities have demanded the church be closed. Health Department spokesman Simon Zwane says Bishop Verryn has been uncooperative. The bishop says he's doing the best he can with limited resources. He has a 22-person security detail and is constantly admonishing the men.

Mr. VERRYN: Do not involve yourself with children under the age of 18, and if you do, you're making yourself my enemy and I will pursue you. I will report you to the police and I will take you to the cleaners. But, you know, this isn't the kingdom of heaven.

HUNTER-GAULT: Verryn says the South African government's attitude towards his church and the people in it reminds him of the days of white minority rule called apartheid.

Mr. VERRYN: Our own humanity has been violated. It's not unlike what we experienced in the '80s. And I know, because I experienced it myself from the security police. You know there is a core of what comprises wholeness in societies that has been violated in a way that will take longer than my lifespan to repay.

HUNTER-GAULT: The South African government has been grappling with the influx of Zimbabweans and episodes of xenophobic attacks on them. More than 100,000 Zimbabweans have applied for political asylum, but so far the government has agreed to only 10,000. No other provisions have been made for the waves of Zimbabweans flooding into the country.

But top Methodist church officials, like presiding Bishop Ivan Abrams, says the government needs to step in because the situation is intolerable.

Bishop IVAN ABRAMS: There is growing discontent within the Methodist family, and everybody's asking how far are we going to allow this to go, simply because this has become an absolute juggernaut.

HUNTER-GAULT: Abrams agrees that the church may have to be closed, but that poses problems too, because there's nowhere for most of the people there to go. Even now, many, including mothers with infants, can be seen begging on street corners by day, and at night, sleeping in abandoned buildings in conditions worse than those at Central Methodist.

Bishop Verryn has petitioned the court to appoint a curator to at least oversee the unaccompanied minors and also innocents, like this one-year-old in diapers playing with his young mother in the church vestry with a ball made out of plastic bags.

Charlayne Hunter-Gault, NPR News, Johannesburg.

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