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NO trip to Soweto is complete without a visit to Regina Mundi, Soweto's largest Catholic Church. Not only has the vast church always been a spiritual haven for thousands of Sowetans, it has also played a pivotal role in the township's history of resistance against apartheid. As such it is a well-circled destination on the tourist map: every day the church opens its doors to streams of visitors keen to witness the scars it still bears from the Soweto uprisings, when police stormed through its doors, firing live ammunition at fleeing students.

But both before and after the dramas of the Soweto uprisings, Regina Mundi - whose name in Latin means Queen of the World - has quietly offered its protection to those struggling for liberation. When political meetings were banned, people sought the safety of Regina Mundi - if not Queen of the World, then surely Queen of Soweto - to form their political strategies. What started out as 'church services' often ended up as political rallies. Funerals, points out Father Vusi Mazibuko, who has been pastor at the church for the past four years, were often political affairs. They started off at Regina Mundi and ended up at Avalon Cemetery.

When protesting students were fired at by police on their way to Orlando Stadium on June 16 1976, and Hector Pieterson and many others were killed, the students fled for sanctuary to Regina Mundi. With buckets of water at the ready, they managed to douse the teargas canisters thrown into the church by police. But then police stormed the church, firing live ammunition. Although no one was killed, many were injured and the church's sacred symbols were damaged. The broken marble alter, the bullet holes in the ceilings and the damaged figure of Christ all bear testimony to the terrible lack of restraint shown by police that day.

Regina Mundi has always been a home to the community of Soweto and has functioned as a centre for important community events. Anti-apartheid stalwart Dr Nthato Motlana once described Regina Mundi as "not just a church - it is the people's church, the church of the nation".

And on 30 November 1997, declared Regina Mundi Day, former President Nelson Mandela paid tribute to the church during a ceremony marking its restoration. "Graduates of Regina Mundi are making important contributions to the reconstruction and development of our country. Such was the role of this church in the lives of many of us; such was the esteem with which it was held, that it popularly became known as the people's cathedral."

"Regina Mundi served the greater Soweto community in times of need. It opened its doors to anti-apartheid activities when all other avenues were closed to the majority of oppressed … It was this stance that earned Regina Mundi a reputation as one of Gauteng's greatest protest centres, a literal battlefield between forces of democracy and those who did not hesitate to violate a place of religion with teargas, dogs and guns. Regina Mundi became a world-wide symbol of the determination of our people to free themselves," Mandela said.

Today the church is as much "the people's church" as ever, swamped by the demands of the community in its midst, whose needs are different but perhaps even more challenging. Though relaxed and youthful-looking in jeans and a t-shirt, Mazibuko clearly finds his job overwhelming at times. Although the daily deluge of tourists - sometimes as many as 200 a day - are taken care of by two full-time tour guides, Regina Mundi is constantly called on for assistance by the community.

"It's a busy place. People come to you in need of help and sometimes you don't have the means to help them," says Mazibuko. The needs of the community are great, particularly during the era of HIV/Aids, he adds. Funerals are frequent - more so because of the scourge of the disease.

The rather ordinary-looking, typically-1960s building (it was built in 1964, replacing Moroka's first church as the parish church), located almost in the middle of Soweto between Rockville and Moroka, belies the richness of its interior: the space inside is vast enough to absorb the murmur of tourists and the sense of peace is all-pervasive. Morning light shines through the beautiful stained-glass windows (donated by Poland in 1998); the renowned Black Madonna looks serenely down from her vantage point to the right of the alter and the rows and rows of gleaming pews are a welcome invitation to the thousands who attend mass every Sunday. Regina Mundi can seat 2 000 people and has space for a further 5 000 standing.

The "Queen of Soweto" has come a long way since her humble beginnings. Today an impressive park built by the City of Johannesburg, with a fountain, benches and green lawns, is in front of the Church. Memorial stones, including a "peace pole" donated by Japanese Christians, and a plaque documenting the Church's history are in evidence outside. Upstairs is an art gallery featuring photographic and art works, documenting the history of the church and the broader subjects of Soweto and Johannesburg.

Not only have the grounds been restored and upgraded, but Regina Mundi has continued to play an important role in Soweto and society in general.

Fittingly, Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings were held in the church from 1995 to 1998, presided over by Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

In March 1998 Regina Mundi made international headlines after a visit by President Bill Clinton and wife Hillary. Clinton caused a furore among Catholics worldwide when he and his wife took Holy Communion during a two-hour service he attended at the church. Since Clinton is a Baptist and his wife a Methodist, this constituted a breach of the cardinal rules of the Catholic Church. Mazibuko says that Father Mohlomi Makobane, parish priest at the time, found it impossible to refuse the Clintons communion when they joined the rest of the congregation.

According to the Los Angeles Times, Makobane said: "Let's be practical. He's a child of God and came willingly to share the Eucharist with us and pray with us ... And he's the most powerful man in the world … If I had denied him communion when he came with the procession … there would have been much more noise."

But the story didn't end there. Makobane chose to base his sermon on adultery at a time when the scandal around Clinton's adulterous affair hung heavily over the heads of the presidential pair. Makobane recalled the parable of the adulterous woman saved by Jesus Christ from being stoned to death. Newspapers gleefully reported how Clinton "became visibly uncomfortable" when Makobane read from John: 1-11. "Clinton looked sombre and rocked on his heels as the priest read the text. Mrs Clinton's head was bowed throughout the reading." But Makobane's sermon preached forgiveness as Jesus forgave the adulterous woman.

What next for Regina Mundi? In Mazibuko's view the church will continue to play the pivotal role it has done since its inception. "The church is an eye. It must see to it that justice is done." In all probability Regina Mundi will bear witness to many interesting times ahead.

This article originally printed by the Johannesburg News Agency

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