October 12, 2016 - 8:45 AM
JOHANNESBURG - Dramatic images show a Catholic priest, his white robe streaked with blood, after he was hit in the face by a rubber bullet at the gates of a church during fighting between South African police and student protesters.
Father Graham Pugin, pastor of Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Johannesburg, was injured Monday during upheaval at universities where students are demonstrating for free education. The church is next to the University of the Witwatersrand, where stone-throwing protesters have confronted police firing rubber bullets in chaotic scenes that tested the church's vow to be a sanctuary.
"We've insisted all the way through that everybody is welcome on the clear understanding that we wouldn't allow any weapons," Pugin said Wednesday in an interview with The Associated Press.
The 58-year-old priest reacted to his shooting with dry humour — "I don't recommend it" — and with some modesty to expressions of support as the images of him spread on social media.
"It's only too easy to make me into some kind of martyr, which would be most inappropriate," said Pugin, who was court-martialed in 1979 for his pacifist opposition to compulsory military service for whites during South Africa's era of white minority rule.
In new unrest Wednesday, police fired rubber bullets at students from Tshwane University of Technology who marched in the capital, Pretoria. The University of the Witwatersrand said classes were proceeding, though five gasoline bombs were found overnight.
"We are aware that many students and staff are being intimidated by protesting students," the university said in a statement. It said that "while protesting students have a right to demonstrate, others have a right to learn and work."
Protests at many universities that get state funding started Sept. 19, when Education Minister Blade Nzimande recommended that universities increase fees by no more than 8 per cent next year. While he also said that the government would cover 2017 fee increases for poor students, protesters demanded a plan that would phase in free education to address economic inequities dating from apartheid, which ended in 1994.
Large student protests in 2015 forced the government to freeze fee increases this year. The protests are smaller this year, but violence has erupted more often.
Some South African religious leaders, including Nobel laureate and retired Anglican archbishop Desmond Tutu, had a prominent role in a non-violent campaign against white rule decades ago. Security forces sometimes targeted Regina Mundi Catholic Church in Johannesburg's Soweto area when anti-apartheid activists sought refuge there.
Pugin's church also opened its doors to protesters in the apartheid era. Today, it operates a soup kitchen and a medical clinic, and also has a lunch program for university students who are short of funds. Pugin said he sympathized with the goal of free education, but won't allow protesters to bring sticks or rocks into the church.
On the day that the priest was shot, some students entered the church grounds to escape police fire. An Associated Press journalist saw medical students there, treating injured protesters.
One photograph shows Pugin at the church gates, standing in the way of a police vehicle. The vehicle drove off, he said. A few minutes later, a police vehicle approached and rubber bullets were fired "deliberately and indiscriminately" into the church grounds, Pugin said. He was hit; those who helped him included a protest leader.
A top police official has apologized to Pugin, who expressed forgiveness. He is recovering at a Jesuit institute near the church.
"It's very volatile," he said. "I would like to get back as soon as I can without being a provocation on either side."
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News from © The Associated Press, 2016