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 initially said the imam of the mosque had died after the attackers slit his throat. But the Herald newspaper reported on Friday that the imam had survived the attack and was in a critical condition at a local hospital, together with the caretaker of the mosque who was also stabbed.
The man who died was a worshipper named Abbas Essop who had come to the imam’s aid after he had heard screams from the mosque. The assailants had also reportedly slit Abbas’ throat.
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.”
Additional reporting by Mishka Wazar and Lizeka Maduna