Arsonists set fire to the headquarters of South Africa’s Roman Catholic bishops today, causing extensive damage in the latest of a series of attacks on anti-government organizations, police and witnesses said.
A 72-year-old woman and three other people trapped on a second-floor balcony attempted to escape by a rope made of blankets and were rescued unharmed by firefighters, police said. Two bishops and another man fled the burning building by a fire escape.
“There’s no question it was arson,” a police spokesman said.
The fire began about 2:30 a.m. after an explosion in the printing works next to the church-owned Khanya House, headquarters of the Southern African Catholic Bishops Conference, which also houses a convent and church archives.
Fires fed by gasoline and kerosene engulfed two floors of the building and damage was extensive, officials said.
Four empty gasoline and kerosene containers were found in the building, spokesman Capt. Reuben Bloomberg said.
Police said they were searching for a Volkswagon mini-bus carrying 11 white and black passengers seen outside Khanya House shortly after the fire.
The attack occurred two weeks after the bishops called on the nation’s Catholics to allow their consciences to decide whether to participate in the Oct. 26 municipal elections for councils in white neighborhoods and black townships.
Dissident church leaders, including Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, have flatly called for a boycott of the segregated elections in defiance of security laws under a 28-month-old state of emergency.
On Aug. 31, a powerful explosion destroyed the Johannesburg headquarters of the South African Council of Churches, which has led the boycott call. Church leaders blamed right-wing government supporters for the attack.