MASERU — Two senior members of the Methodist Church of Lesotho were last Sunday seriously injured in a factional clash over the use of a school hall for church services.
The injured — Steven Mapheelle and Phakiso Lebona — belong to a “faction” led by The Reverend Daniel Rantle, 53, who heads the Methodist Church in the country.
The attackers allegedly belong to a faction led by The Reverend Daniel Senkhane, who headed the church for 16 years before he retired in 1998.
He was replaced by Rantle in 1999.
Trouble started a few months later when Senkhane, 83, allegedly sought to come out of retirement to lead the church again.
Since then Senkhane has been wooing some senior church members to back his return.
Sunday’s clash between the rival factions happened at Methodist High School in Khubetsoana, on the outskirts of Maseru.
Eyewitnesses said “sticks, stones and hammers” were used in the attack.
The two who were injured were rushed to Queen Elizabeth II Hospital where they were treated for cuts and other injuries.
Police spokesperson Pheello Mphana confirmed the incident.
He said six people were initially arrested in connection with the attack but three of them were later released.
“The three are expected to appear in court next week,” Mphana said without giving specific details.
He said Senkhane was among the suspects arrested in connection with the incident.
It could however not be established whether or not the elderly reverend was among those released.
Senkhane’s group has been allegedly fighting to control the church’s properties, schools and finances.
The Methodist Church of Lesotho has two high schools, 11 primary schools and other properties that include houses and church buildings.
The church also has one hospital.
It has about 10 000 followers in the country.
Last Sunday’s clash was over the use of a hall at Methodist High School.
Rantle told the Sunday Express on Friday that his group had been using the school hall since 2004 for services for parishioners from Khubetsoana, Sekamaneng and Ha-Foso.
He said he was, however, shocked when Senkhane allegedy pitched up at the school to hold a service on January 10.
“We have always been using it until two weeks ago when Reverend Senkhane came and tried to hold services there,” Rantle said.
“I suspected Senkhane and his members wanted to use the school hall because they had been removed from a house in Lower Thamae where they had been having their services all along.
“Some church elders went there to check what was happening but Senkhane told them to find somewhere to worship because he was taking the hall.”
Rantle’s group made a report about the incident at Mabote Police Station.
He said the police asked the rival parties to report at the station on January 11 to deal with the dispute “but when that day arrived Senkhane and his group did not come”.
“When they did not come, on Friday (January 15) it was agreed that we should proceed,” Rantle said.
“It was agreed that none of the two factions should hold services there.
“This was because we wanted peace for the church and the students.”
Trouble, Rantle said, started last Sunday when Senkhane’s group opened the school hall and were about to hold their Sunday service.
“Two members we had sent to the hall to tell people about the decision not to use the hall found Senkhane and his people already at the school and ready to fight,” he said.
“They told us that Senkhane’s people were armed with dangerous weapons like sticks and stones.
“Our people were attacked when they tried to explain to Reverend Senkhane that a decision had been made for both groups to stop using the hall until the matter has been resolved.”
Senkhane’s group however had a different story to tell.
Seabata Semione, the circuit steward of the Senkhane-led faction, confirmed the incident but blamed Rantle’s followers for the clash.
“Last Sunday when Reverend Senkhoane arrived at the school he found the two men, Mapheelle and Lebona, who said they were sent to kill him,” said Semione.
“They pushed him out of the school and he fell in a nearby donga.
“This is when the fight started.”
He said the group had decided to use the school hall because “it was available”.
Semione alleged that Mapheelle and Lebona were armed with sticks.
He said problems in the church started in 2003 when Rantle refused to be transferred to Quthing.
“Rantle refused to comply saying he was being demoted as he was the priest at the church headquarters,” Semione said.
“The church then decided to transfer him to South Africa but still he refused.
“Church members were divided into two between those who were on his side and those against the decision.
“He was suspended in 2005 as a priest while the matter was being resolved.”
Semione said the school principal had permitted his group to use the hall because they did not have a church.
He said after the clash the two men were rushed to hospital.
But Rantle said Semione’s allegations were lies.
“I did not send Mapheelle and Lebona to go and kill Senkhane,” Rantle said.
“Instead they were going to stop our members from using the hall because of what happened on January 10.
“Allegations that I was transferred are also false.
“I was never transferred. I am the head of the church. How can I be transferred?
“I am actually the one who transfers priests to new stations.
“It’s also not true to say that there was a disciplinary hearing and I was suspended.
“There was never such a thing.”
A villager who witnessed the fight, Lekhanya Mokeki, said it was around 10am when the fracas started.
“We were surprised because they were holding their bibles,” Mokeki said.
“The two men were badly injured because they were attacked by close to 20 members who were holding weapons.”
The Methodist Church of Lesotho was registered in 1984 as the Methodist Church of Southern Africa (PTY) Ltd.
At that time Senkhane was the head of the church.
Rantle said problems in the church started about a year after he was appointed as Senkhane’s successor in 1999.
“We started to notice that he wanted to come back and he was influencing some members against the church,” he said.
He added that after some time, some senior church members started being “hostile and uncooperative”.
“We did not understand why until we notice that Reverend Senkhane was behind the problems,” Rantle said.
“We realised that he wanted to come back from retirement.
“He had divided the church.”
Senkhoane could not be reached for comment.