A religious sect registered as an official University of Stellenbosch society is fighting for the hearts and minds of impressionable students.

Academics have spoken out against the sect, known as the Shofar Christian Church, and have said they believe "some brainwashing" is involved, prompting students to walk out of lectures in protest.

Shofar is the Hebrew word for ram's horn.

Also opposed to the church is documentary film-maker Jan Dekker, who says he's going to make a film about it called Devil's Church, claiming it is "violating" members' human rights.

But church members say Dekker's hostility stems from his love for a woman member who doesn't want to have anything to do with him. The church says he is "stalking" her. Dekker has admitted he is in love with the woman.

Concerns about whether the church is a "fringe cult" have been raised by some Stellenbosch University lecturers, parents and students. Some members of the broader Stellenbosch community are also worried.

The university initiated an inquiry into the organisation after student newspaper Die Matie ran an article.

The church is the subject of a heated debate on various Internet websites and blogs. Even Facebook.com has two groups set up, one called "Shofar is evil and must be stopped", and another called "Shofar is a cult".

Allegations against the church include getting students to pay 10 percent of their bursaries, scholarships or earnings to the church; church members becoming slowly isolated from their friends and families; and members only being allowed to date within the church.

There have also been reports of one or two members having breakdowns because of what the critics call the preaching of "unwarranted demonic fear of brimstone, fire and hell".

The church was started by Pastor Fred May and his wife, Lucille, who settled in Stellenbosch in 1989. The church's website says the ministry started after "the Lord placed a burden" on May to intercede for Stellenbosch, especially when he saw "occult practitioners had become bold enough to gather in public seances and do door-to-door visits".

May started to gather a small group of converts who joined him in "spiritual warfare and intercession".

"The Holy Spirit directed them through prophecy to University of Stellenbosch. God opened a door for this fledgling ministry to register as a student society and start ministering to the students in all earnest. God, in His wisdom, chose to reach the community of Stellenbosch, which was greatly influenced by dead religion and racism, through a life-giving church that was born out of Pastor Fred and Lucille's cross-cultural marriage.

Despite initial misgivings, the community - which to a large extent is the cradle of traditional religion and apartheid, has embraced Shofar Christian Church."

The reference to the Mays' "cross-cultural" marriage relates to May being coloured and his wife white.

According to the church website, it has branches in Ceres, Paarl, Malmesbury, Cape Town, Johannesburg and even London.

Dr Juri van den Heever, of the Department of Zoology at the university, who teaches evolution, has not won any kudos with Shofar. Church members have staged walk-outs during his lectures.

"Their reactions have been entirely fundamentalist. They have misread and been misinformed about the Bible. It is not a literal handbook but a moral one," said Van den Heever

He believes parents should be concerned about the church because it was "pretty close to a cult".

"I believe there is some brainwashing going on. May teaches the Bible as a literal truth and that the universe is only 6 000-years-old. He comes from lala land. If he wants to stay there that is fine but he has involved a whole lot of impressionable students.

"The problem arises when we are attacked for doing our jobs. This is an academic institution where students are encouraged to question and do research, pursue scientific thinking."

Author and former head of the journalism department, George Claassen, who is the director of the organisation Sceptic South Africa, posted two articles about his concerns on his website, one which included 15 questions for Shofar.

He says he has had a response on close to 2 000 people for and against the church.

Claassen said: "Something immoral, unscientific is taking place on the campus - it is called Shofar - it influences students to be uncritical, to believe in superstition and to carry that superstition into lecture halls, despite the findings of science.

"That so many Stellenbosch students leave their baloney detectors outside the classroom - is no good advertisement for what should be one of Africa's leading universities."

The church denies that members are forced to make financial donations and date only within the church.

Church spokesman Morne Bosch said the perception that they wanted to disrupt academic life was nonsense.

"We have a firm stance on contentious issues and stand for some truths that we will always be criticised for. We are not a cult but a church which is a member of the International Federation of Christian Churches."

University spokesperseon Martine Viljoen said the church was a registered student organisation approved by the Student Representative Council.

"We took note of the concerns raised in the Die Matie article and entered into a constructive discussion with the church about their role on campus and what we as an institution expect."

Dekker has a court interdict against him to prevent him from coming into contact with the woman.

The church says on numerous occasions they have been forced to lock the doors during services because Dekker was "lurking" outside and at times they even had to call the police.

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