Churches need to be ‘positively paranoid’, says crime expert, following recent brazen attacks

A pastor was held at gunpoint while preaching in Durban in July 2023. Picture: Screenshot

A pastor was held at gunpoint while preaching in Durban in July 2023. Picture: Screenshot

Published Mar 24, 2024


The recent murder of a 70-year-old caretaker at a church in Phoenix has once again cast the spotlight on security at places of worship.

The elderly man was strangled to death and items were missing.

A case of murder and robbery was being investigated, and no arrests had been made, police said.

Last week, Roman Catholic priest Father William Banda was murdered, allegedly by a well-dressed man at the Tzaneen Diocese.

Banda was shot twice in the head and died on arrival at the hospital.

Police are still searching for his killers.

In October 2023, video footage of a pastor shot and killed while addressing the congregation in Gauteng went viral.

Guest pastor Dwayne Gordon had been addressing a church in Rorich Street in Newlands when he was killed.

Guest pastor Dwayne Gordon. Picture: Supplied

At the time, police spokesperson Colonel Dimakatso Nevhuhulwi said that a group of about six unknown men accosted the congregation.

“The suspects fired shots and three people were injured. One of the victims who succumbed to his injuries was identified as the pastor.”

Police said the suspects proceeded to rob people of their cellphones and other belongings before they fled the scene.

In another incident, in July 2023, on the KZN North Coast, a pastor had been preaching when gunmen accosted him at the pulpit.

Footage of the attack also went viral on social media.

It showed a man brazenly walking up to the pastor, robbing him, before casually unplugging a television and walking out.

Children were present in the evening service during the attack.

AfriForum recently cited that the increasing of crimes at churches was due to places of worship being considered as soft targets.

“Robbers often consider churches to be a soft crime target and the increasing incidence of attacks at churches is indicative of this,” said AfriForum spokesperson Jacques Broodryk.

“Incidents of crime at churches have recently shown that churches are not prepared for the dangers of crime. In contrast, a prepared church – which has, and follows the necessary safety measures – is a difficult target for criminals and the criminals will most likely shift their focus.”

He said a prepared church can effectively reduce the risks and impact of criminal activities which include burglaries, armed robbery, vehicle theft and arson.

AfriForum said that in November more than 1,500 congregations approached Faith Mazibuko, the MEC for Community Safety in Gauteng to create awareness about the prevalence of this crime at churches.

Reverend Cyril Pillay from the Chatsworth Spiritual Crime Prevention Forum urged religious organisations to be vigilant at all times.

Pastor Cyril Pillay. Picture: Supplied

“Places of worship are meant to be places of religious reflection and also a safe space,” he said.

“However in recent media spaces, serious and violent crimes have been highlighted where places of worship have become a target for brazen criminals. These criminals have no respect for law, neither Godly places.

“As the Spiritual Crime Prevention Forum, we encourage all religious organisations to partner with police, security companies and the local Community Policing Forums,” said Pillay.

Pillay said active citizenry from society will create visibility, thus serve as a deterrent to criminals.

“The onus and responsibility rests with police and religious organisations to address crimes that are committed at places of worship,” said Pillay.

“Places of worship can become safe spaces if we install target hardening methods such as cameras, access control, improve lighting in and around properties and security guards,” he said.

“We must know that we are not immune to threats, therefore, act decisively to protect your congregations and yourself before there is another crime statistic.”

Mike Bolhuis from Specialised Security Services in Gauteng said churches and religious gathering were easy targets for criminals and they take advantage of the vulnerability.

“It’s not a lot of loot, but if you grab a group of people and take whatever they have - jewellery, handbag, money, food and sometimes, even a vehicle. They will do it,” Bolhuis said.

“This is the situation in South Africa. Criminals will not spare anybody. They will take advantage of any, and all situations.”

Bolhuis was of the view that churches and all other religious organisations should operate like a normal business and protect themselves with proper safety and security measures like alarm systems, panic buttons, security officers and even getting security companies involved.

“They cannot see themselves as not being a target. They themselves need to be positively paranoid and aware,” he said.

Mike Bolhuis. Picture: Supplied

“They must understand that the mindset of humans have completely changed, they do not see any religious institution or church as a no-go zone and the days of superstition are over,” Bolhuis said.

“It is absolute greed and criminal intent. They will take anything and everything, even turning violent in some instances.”

He said reasons varied why churches were attacked.

“In some cases, it could be an dispute with a church member, it could be revenge, but it is emotional.”

He said criminals can often operate in gangs or syndicates.

Bolhuis said criminals need to be made aware that churches are getting security companies for their religious services.

“So there is a pattern and congregants should be protected.”

He said criminals today plan and consider their crimes, but if there is a slight opportunity they will take it.

“Here is where the elderly and children become the most vulnerable. But we are all targets because the human is valuable and these criminals know that.”

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