Johannesburg, South Africa, Oct 11, 2016 / 03:27 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- A Jesuit priest was shot in the face with rubber bullets by police in Johannesburg while trying to protect student protestors in a violent clash with authorities on Monday.
South African students have been protesting in recent weeks after the government proposed increasing university tuition by eight percent in 2017. They are now demanding free education.
Father Graham Pugin, a priest at Holy Trinity Catholic Church in the Braamfonein neighborhood near the University of the Witwatersrand, was trying to block police Oct. 10 from entering the church, where some students had taken refuge. Reportedly, his hands were up when he was shot at close range by police with rubber bullets.
Though there has not been an official report on his condition, a video shows Fr. Pugin, his mouth bloodied and dripping on his alb, walking with other students to receive care.
University students in South Africa have been protesting for four weeks over the proposed tuition rate hike. On Monday, students with the #FeesMustFall protestors lashed out after tough restrictions were placed on protests on campus.
The protests had begun peacefully, but students turned to disrupting classes and throwing stones and bottles at police and security guards. Protestors had also set a bus on fire.
“The students started throwing sizeable rocks that could have maimed or killed people. The police dispersed the crowd using stun grenades‚ teargas and water cannons. Some of the crowd remain outside the Great hall while others have since dispersed into Braamfontein‚” a University spokesperson told Times Live, a South African news agency.
According to a statement by Fr. David Rowan with the Ignatian Solidarity Network, Fr. Pugin was a facilitator, along with other clergy and former student leaders, in working towards an agreement among students, management, and other stakeholders at the University of the Witwatersrand.
The shooting of Fr. Pugin, who was working to create an atmosphere of trust, has “shocked and distressed many”, but the community is still hopeful that a peaceful solution can be achieved.
Fr. Rowan noted that the Jesuit community is grateful for the prayers and well-wishes on behalf of Fr. Pugin, as well as the support they have received from the Jesuit General Congregation currently meeting in Rome and Archbishop Peter Wells, apostolic nuncio to South Africa.
Fr. Rowan added that while the Jesuit community is in favor of working toward a peaceful agreement in the fees crisis, it is just the first step of addressing the problems that exist in South Africa's education system.
“We believe there needs to be a concerted effort, involving all sectors of society, to deal with the historical context and systemic problems which make higher education inaccessible and unaffordable for millions of poor South Africans,” he said.
“We appeal to all involved to pledge themselves to restore peace on and around our campuses.”
The South African bishops' conference released a statement following the shooting of Fr. Pugin, extending their “sincere sympathy and prayers for a speedy recovery” for the priest who was “offering refuge to frightened students.”
The bishops added that while they support the students’ right to demand a good and affordable education, they do not condone the violence and looting associated with the protests.
They also said they believe the best course forward is for students and educators to continue with the academic year while working out a compromise for the future.
“…the solution suggested by the students at the moment is beyond the financial and organizational capabilities of university authorities. However, it must remain on our agenda as the priority for the future,” the bishops wrote.
“What is to be done is for the government to ensure that this academic year is completed in peace. The government and students must now iron out their difficulties. A compromise must be considered as the huge financial demands of university free education cannot be found instantaneously.”
South Africa's government had proposed a similar tuition hike of 10-12 percent in 2015, but froze fees after similar protests.
The student protests are the country's largest since the 1994 end of apartheid. According to the BBC, protestors claim the rate hikes are discriminatory against black students, as the average income of black families is much less than that of white families in South Africa.
In a Sept. 27 statement, the South African bishops' conference had voiced hope that there would be found “a realistic plan of making it possible for the poor and working class families to have access to higher education after the year 2017” and that the private sector would “look into other ways of increasing their financial support to make education affordable to the poor and working class families.”