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By Ella Smook, Gill Gifford, Baldwin Ndaba and Botho Molosankwe
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The Rhema Church has denied it has endorsed ANC president Jacob Zuma and the ruling party, defending its decision to give him a platform at a weekend church service.
Church spokesperson Vusi Mona said on Sunday that during apartheid, cabinet ministers routinely addressed congregations and that, post-democracy, a number of politicians had visited his church.
But when he was asked to name them, he listed only names of senior ANC stalwarts such as Mathews Phosa, Tokyo Sexwale and former Gauteng premier Mathole Motshekga. He said leaders from other parties were welcome to visit.
On Sunday Rhema leader Pastor Ray McCauley prayed for Zuma: "We pray for peace in our nation - we pray for our leader and we pray for absolute peace during the election. Bless him, keep him protected, guide and lead him."
Zuma's visit on Sunday caused some unhappiness among churchgoers, with a reported 60 members walking out during his speech, accusing him of electioneering in a place of worship.
Accusations were also made that the church did not extend invitations to other political parties.
A church member interviewed on CapeTalk radio asked whether the DA, IFP or COPE would be allowed "on that stage for a good 40 minutes like Jacob Zuma? And the answer is a big fat 'no' and I'm so disgusted".
Another congregant said: "He's only here for votes. We don't want him here. Let's hope he'll get saved here today."
When Mona was asked whether the Rhema Church would allow DA leader Helen Zille a platform, he said: "We will have to interrogate what it is she wants to speak about - if we are comfortable with it."
He reiterated that Zuma had not been at the church to campaign for the ANC and said the invitation came about as a result of a "meeting of minds".
"The visit that happened today was planned as far back as May last year, when Zuma was going through trials and difficult times. We had a feeling as a church to reach out - our role is to pray for such people.
"Unbeknownst to us, there was also a desire on his part to visit and be prayed for."
Asked whether the church financed the ANC in any way, Mona was emphatic that it did not and that the church was a non-political, non-partisan body. He added, however, that politics was not "a plague to be avoided", as the church had to "influence the world for good".
"We see ourselves as relevant where opinion and leadership is sought," he said.
On the issue of people walking out during Zuma's speech, Mona said that if anyone had left, it would have been a statistically very small number of the estimated 7 500-strong congregation.
DA chief whip Ian Davidson said Zuma "needs a lot of prayers", but questioned Rhema's decision to have him there.
"The church is supposed to promote high moral values and cannot endorse or promote a person who has proved that he is incapable of having those high moral values," he said. "Zuma faces 780 charges. It would be highly inconceivable of the church to endorse him as the country's next leader.
"We need leaders who are beyond reproach in terms of moral standing and Zuma is certainly not one of them."
The Rhema Church recently made news when it was listed as one of the entities affected by the financial shenanigans of former ANC spokesperson Carl Niehaus.
The church has admitted that Niehaus had incurred unauthorised expenditure of about R521 000 in overseas travel and advances.
The church says Niehaus was suspended and made to pay the interest and attorney fees, over and above the capital amount he owed.
Mona said yesterday that after the Niehaus scandal broke, there was "a desire from our side to help (Niehaus) with counselling". There had been some arrangements that had not materialised, because "we don't know where he is".
Answering on the first ring when called by the Cape Argus, an irate Niehaus said he was still planning on meeting McCauley, but that the meeting had nothing to do with counselling.