Holy war for one of city’s oldest churches

By Time of article published Apr 16, 2012

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THE DECISION to sell one of Joburg’s oldest churches to an Islamic academy to be turned into a madrassa has resulted in a bitter legal battle.

At the centre of this holy war are the NG Kerk, Glory Divine World Ministries (GDWM) and an Islamic academy. GDWM, who have been renting the NG Kerk on Church Square, Langlaagte, for the past few years, accused the NG Kerk of being “like Judas Iscariot” and selling them out for “30 pieces of silver”.

They also charged the academy with not caring about where their more than 1 000 congregants would now worship.

The NG Kerk sold the church building to an Islamic academy for R2,7 million. Spokesman Neels Engelbrecht said the decision to sell was based on financial reasons as it was no longer viable to keep the church.

“We could not maintain it anymore and needed the money to use in the community. There is a lot of poverty in the area. The money will be used to feed the people. I can’t comment on other things because the matter is sub judice and we are busy with litigation,” Engelbrecht said.

But GDWM bishop Dr Ryan Sooknunan said his organisation had spent R300 000 upgrading the church and was responsible for maintaining it. GDWM paid rent of R6 000 a month and fed poor people in the area, he said.

The church group has filed papers at the Johannesburg High Court, accusing the NG Kerk of breaking its agreement, which gave it permission to use the church indefinitely – as long as it was for the sole purpose of propagating the Gospel.

Sooknunan said the NG Kerk promised that it would not sell the church to anyone as GDWM had been using it for 12 years. But if they had to sell it, GDWM would be given first option to buy it at a reduced price.

He said that when different race groups started living in Langlaagte between 1994 and 1995, many Afrikaners left the area and the NG Kerk congregation dwindled.

From 2001, the church elders gave him permission to conduct services at the church from 9am to 10am. By 2009, he said, NG Kerk elders allowed him the full use of the church. The remaining NG Kerk congregants then moved to a church in Brixton.

In 2010, the NG Kerk told him it wanted to sell the parking lot. He objected and offered them R250 000 for it, Sooknunan said.

“They never responded, but at the end of the year they said they wanted to sell the church. I was amazed. They had said the church (which was opened in 1902) is a monument and could not be sold,” he said.

“They told me to put in an offer, and I put in R700 000, based on the fact that I had been using the church for many years and I had been doing what they said I should use it for, which is propagating the Gospel. They told me that the offer was refused but that it had been taken to the financial committee for consideration.’’

Sooknunan claims that Muslims then started coming to photograph the church.

At one point, a security guard signed an affidavit at the Langlaagte police station, claiming that an NG Kerk elder and a maulana (Muslim preacher) had jumped the fence, sworn at him and threatened him when he refused to open the church for them.

Sooknunan said: “From that day, I stopped the Muslims from coming to the church without an appointment. I told the NG Kerk I will not allow Muslims to buy the church. We are on Church Square, not Madrassa Square. If there were 1 000 Afrikaners worshipping here, the NG Kerk would not have sold the church,” he said. “When I told them about the promise they made to me… their response was that God does not stay in a building.”

The NG Kerk has yet to file responding court documents.

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