Three men stormed into the church in the North West and‚ at gunpoint‚ stripped worshippers of their cellphones and handbags in a brazen daylight robbery.
The trauma of being robbed and shot during a Sunday service has left congregants of the New Covenant Fellowship Church in Rustenburg with frightening memories – and bullets lodged in their bodies.
Now‚ more than a year later‚ two of the attackers have been sentenced to 15 years behind bars by the Rustenburg Regional Court.
“If I was the magistrate‚ I would have given them more than that but the law is the law‚” said Bishop Isaac Mokgope.
The sentencing of the pair was partly due to the bravery of Mokgope and some members of his congregation who‚ as bullets flew in the church‚ managed to apprehend one of the robbers.
Recalling that traumatic day on March 19‚ 2017‚ the bishop told TimesLIVE this week: “They took handbags and phones at gunpoint. They were all over the church. They kept checking outside to see if any people or police were coming. They then came to me where I was seated and demanded my phone and a gun. I told them I don’t have a gun. They told me to lie down but I refused.”
For several minutes‚ the armed gang went through the congregation‚ taking what they could from each of their victims.
“I was shocked but I was not afraid. I needed to fight. I was just numb‚” said Mokgope‚ who started the church more than 25 years ago.
Mokgope said that every few minutes‚ one or two of the attackers would run outside to check if the coast was clear. When two of them went outside again‚ he followed.
“I closed the Maxidoors behind them so when they came back‚ they found that the doors were locked and they were now in the reception area. They began firing shots inside the church and that is when some people were injured‚” he said.
Five members of the congregation were shot – three women‚ a man and a 17-year-old boy. All of them survived.
“Two of them are still walking around with bullets in them. They couldn’t be taken out‚” Mokgope said.
The pair locked outside kept shooting into the church‚ hoping to scare the congregants into freeing their unarmed accomplice trapped inside. “[He] was apprehended by the other congregants‚” said Mokgope. “The others ran away.”
It did not take police long to arrest the other gang members. “On the same day‚ they arrested the other two and [soon thereafter they] told me they had got their firearms too‚” said Mokgope.
Police spokesperson Captain Elsabé Augoustides said that one of the firearms used in the attack had been stolen from a security official while the other’s serial number had been filed off.
“Most of the goods that were robbed from the congregants were also recovered‚” said Augoustides.
The congregants came face-to-face with the three attackers‚ taking the stand to testify against them in court.
“But in the process of going to court‚ one [of the suspects] escaped [from police custody]. Police are still following up‚” said Mokgope.
“This guy also has other cases against him. I think he realised that he is going to be in trouble when he ran away‚” he added.
Augoustides said that police were still hunting for the 23-year-old who escaped from custody.
Mokgope said the wounded congregants attended court solely to give their testimonies but did not return afterwards. They were unable to face the people who almost took their lives. The convicted robbers‚ Molefe Lehole‚ 22‚ and 32-year-old Thabiso Innocent Rankhasa‚ both illegal immigrants from Lesotho‚ did not request forgiveness.
“They told the magistrate that they want to plead guilty. A date was set [for them to plead] but on the set date‚ they refused. That is why the case took so long‚” Mokgope said.
Lehole and Rankhasa were sentenced to 15 years in prison for robbery with aggravating circumstances on June 14.
Nowadays‚ some of the male congregants ensure that security is tightened during church services.
Mokgope said this attack was not the first the church had suffered. Back in 2015‚ during a church conference‚ a group of armed men had entered a dormitory where the female congregants were sleeping and stole their cellphones.
Those suspects were never arrested.
Despite there being a lack of remorse from the three-man gang‚ the church congregants have forgiven them.
“We have forgiven them but justice must be done… We forgive them but we cannot forget‚” said Mokgope.
Source: Times Live