South African police are hunting for three attackers who cut the throat of an imam and stabbed and seriously injured two other people at a Shia mosque.
The attack on the mosque on Thursday in Verulam, a town 27km north of Durban, left the Muslim community outraged and demanding answers.
Major Bheki Langa, KwaZulu-Natal province’s acting police commissioner, said in a statement the motive was still unclear. The assailants also set the mosque on fire before escaping in a getaway vehicle.
“Such criminality cannot be tolerated. A team of investigators has been dispatched to solve the case and bring perpetrators to book,” Langa said.
Emergency rescue services said the imam’s throat had been slit and he later died, while the two other men had been stabbed. Both victims were in hospital in critical condition.
The incident drew immediate condemnation from the Muslim leadership across the country.
Faisal Suleman, chairperson of the South African Muslim Network, told Al Jazeera his organisation would not want to speculate on a motive given it was still not clear. “We condemn this attack and we are urging the law enforcement to spare no effort in apprehending the perpetrators alive so that the reasons become known,” Suleman said from Durban.
“South Africa has not had such attacks in the past, so we caution against speculation.”
The Muslim Judicial Council denounced the bloodshed and said the core of Islamic teachings and principles are “respect for all human beings”.
Islamic scholar Shaykh Rafeek Haseen told community radio station Voice of the Cape that Durban’s Muslim community is in shock and urged people not to jump to conclusions.
“It may be a case of money laundering or a personal issue between the perpetrators and the victims. I do not think we should jump to conclusions that this attack is motivated by sectarianism,” said Haseen.
The United Ulama Council of South Africa denounced “these grievous and vicious attacks”.
“We condemn these unjustifiable acts of violence, which foster nothing but tension, mistrust, and insecurity within communities,” said the group’s Secretary-General Yusuf Patel.
Muslims make up about 1.9 percent of South Africa’s 55 million population, with most following the Sunni Muslim denomination. Attacks on mosques are extremely rare, but observers note anti-Shia rhetoric has been on the rise over the past few years, especially on social media. Farid Sayed, editor of the Muslim Views newspaper based in Cape Town, said there have been attacks on mosques before, but usually from the “racist, white right-wing”.
Sayed said many Muslims in South Africa deny the fact that there is intra-faith intolerance in the community.
“One can dismiss this as a once-off attack, it may not even be a sectarian attack. But I think it alerts us to the fact that we could actually be facing a situation where there could be violence [in the future].
“In the past, it was always verbal attacks, not physical. I have some [social media] posts that suggest that it ‘was just a Shia mosque’, in other words, they deserved to be attacked,” Sayed said.
The country’s parliament also released a statement condemning the violence. “A mosque is a religious institution and South Africa’s constitution guarantees and protects the right to religious practices,” Francois Beukman, chairperson of the Portfolio Committee on Police, said in a statement released from parliament.
“This kind of attack on three innocent people is totally unjustified. We want our communities to live in harmony, practising their religions without fear.”
Meanwhile, there are elements of extremism in the attack of the KwaZulu-Natal mosque where one man died and two others were seriously injured, the Hawks said yesterday.
KwaZulu-Natal Hawks spokesperson Captain Simphiwe Mhlongo said that the Hawks were leading the investigation following the attack at the Imam Hussain Mosque in Ottawa, Verulam, north of Durban on Thursday.
“There are elements of extremism that we have noticed. There is some sort of hatred pertaining to religion . . . hence we’re saying there were elements of extremism,” said Mhlongo.
He said the Hawks were investigating one count of murder, two of attempted murder and one count of assault. He said the deceased was Abbas Essop, who was in his late 20s. “The two other people are in a critical condition in hospital,” he said.
No arrests have been made.
Mhlongo added that the Hawks were working with the SAPS and local security companies to investigate the matter. He urged anyone with information to contact their local police station.
Azad Seedat, the mosque’s chairperson, said on Thursday evening that he couldn’t rule out the possibility that a terrorist group was behind the attack.
He confirmed that the mosque was attended by Shia Muslims and that its library had been petrol bombed during the attack. — Sapa