JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA — When three armed robbers burst into St. Matthew's Anglican Traditional Church 20 minutes into the Sunday morning service, Sheena Shirley dropped to her knees and began praying the "Our Father."
As one of the robbers pressed the barrel of his gun against her salt-and-pepper hair, the retired schoolteacher paused from prayer long enough to dig into her purse and hand over her money.
After collecting cash, other valuables, and cellphones from her fellow worshipers, and rifling through the priest's pockets, the three gunmen made off with the equivalent of a few thousand US dollars, several pieces of heirloom jewelry, and this religious community's peace of mind.
The June 4 incident is part of a disturbing new trend in South African crime - the robberies of entire congregations during Sunday religious services. The holdups have renewed South Africans' sense of outrage with the level of crime here and given fresh urgency to gun-control legislation now before Parliament.
At least three Sunday robberies have been reported in the Johannesburg area in recent months. While bold criminals are nothing new in South Africa, this is a new low, many citizens say. What will happen to this nation, they ask, if criminals fear neither the police nor God?
"It shows that people these days have no respect for religion - for anything," says Methodist minister, Ivan Abrahams. "In the past, certain things in society were sacred."
But in recent years, hospitals, courts, and doctors' offices have been targeted in similar holdups. "There are simply very few sacred grounds left in South Africa," says Elrena van der Spuy, director of the Institute of Criminology at the University of Cape Town.
The church thefts, still under police investigation, have spurred a lobbying effort by the South African Council of Churches for stricter gun-control legislation. And fear of future holdups has churches throughout Johannesburg struggling to find a balance between keeping their flocks safe and maintaining an open-door policy.
A public in the dark
The church robberies, which have struck congregations across the racial spectrum, come at a time when South Africans are particularly worried about crime. Last month, the national police force stopped releasing crime statistics to the public.
The minister of Safety and Security, Steve Tshwete, said the figures, which placed South Africa among the 10 most dangerous countries in the world, were being checked for accuracy. Once verified, he said, the crime figures would once again be public. But critics say the moratorium has another goal - to keep an anxious public in the dark about the alarming rate of violent crime in this struggling nation.
White citizens here harshly criticize a society in which carjackings and murders occur with growing frequency in every suburb, as well as a government and police department that appears unable to stop the violence.
But experts like Ms. van der Spuy say it is unclear if the total amount of crime in South Africa has increased since apartheid fell - or if the crime has moved from black townships, where it was ignored by authorities, to white suburbs, where it receives more attention.
Criminals grow bolder
Churches have long been targets for criminals, but until recently the modus operandi was nighttime burglary. Then, a few years ago, robbers began to hold up church staff on their trips to the bank to deposit weekly collections. Increasingly aggressive gunmen then began raiding churches on Monday morning as clergy or secretaries were counting collections, with cellphones and computers added to the booty.
Rev. David Jones, pastor of St. James Free Presbyterian Church in Bedfordview, has watched in disbelief as lawlessness changed the face of his church. Slowly, St. James, on a meadow's edge in Johannesburg's northern suburbs, has been transformed into a fortress.
In 1997, a six-foot chain-link fence replaced the quaint knee-high white border. The next year, after a fourth burglary, an alarm was installed and armed guards hired to transport the weekly collections to the local bank. High-tech cameras were installed last year.
Despite these measures, a month ago one of three caretakers who lives on the property discovered two holes cut in the church's perimeter fence. Later they discovered that the lenses of the church's security cameras had been covered.
"We are no longer worried about the church property," Mr. Jones says. "It's our congregation we're trying to protect now."
The church immediately hired armed guards to stand watch during Sunday services and instituted a new rule: The church's doors are locked 10 minutes after the start of the Sunday morning service - 9:10 a.m. Anyone arriving after that is locked out.
Leaning back in his leather office chair and looking out the burglar-barred picture window of his office, Jones tries to find a bright side in all this. "It cured latecomers," he quips. "Everyone comes on time for church now."
All the security might make the church appear unwelcoming to new members or passersby in need of spiritual sustenance, Jones acknowledges. "I don't see what we can do. Any church that doesn't have security will close down. People won't come if they don't feel safe."
Push for new measures
Meanwhile, the Council of Churches is urging the government to establish a gun buy-back program, similar to those found in the United States. They hope this will take away some of the 4.5 million guns (one for every 10 people) in circulation in this country. The firearms-control bill they support, now being debated by the South African Parliament, places tighter restrictions on who can legally purchase a gun and how many guns a person can own.
After counseling, Ms. Shirley has returned to her church's services - but leaves home only after removing all her jewelry and taking her wallet out of her handbag. Her church responded to the armed robbery by installing a brown metal gate over their sanctuary's entryway. It is locked during services. Newcomers are questioned before the gate is opened.
"We have had some visitors to our church," she says. "We tell them to pray for our country."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society