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1,000 Attend S. Africa Service for O.C. Woman

August 30, 1993|ANTHONY H. HEARD and DAVE LESHER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

CAPE TOWN, South Africa — More than 1,000 people, treading the dusty streets of Guguletu township in their best clothes, packed into St. Gabriel's Roman Catholic Church on Sunday for a memorial service to honor the life of Amy Elizabeth Biehl.

A picture of the young Newport Beach woman, who was slain Wednesday just a mile from the church, was held aloft as the congregation sang hymns, rang the church bell and read tearful messages inscribed in a book that will be sent to Biehl's parents, Peter and Linda.

"We would like to thank you for sending your daughter to help us," one woman said, reading her inscription to the congregation. "She showed courage in coming to Guguletu, and she believed in us and never thought of us as black, but simply as human beings--just as she was."

"We will try our best to follow in her footsteps to bring about peace in our country," another woman read.

The crowd at the church on a sunshine-filled day swelled to twice the usual size for a Sunday service. Most of the congregation was black, but about 100 white visitors attended, including a former mayor of Cape Town.

The white visitors risked their safety to travel to the township because whites are sometimes targeted for violence. They were given meticulous instructions for finding the church and were warned about traveling into the neighborhoods.

Biehl, 26, a Fullbright scholar attending the University of the Western Cape, was killed Wednesday when about 100 black youths ambushed her car while she was driving three black friends to their homes. Biehl, who was scheduled to return to her home in Newport Beach on Saturday, was hit in the head with a brick and stabbed.

Biehl spent much of her time in South Africa working on human rights. At Sunday's memorial service, Father Basil van Rensburg urged the congregation to make Biehl's death a catalyst for the peace she spent her life seeking.

"Nothing can bring Amy back, nor the many others who have died," he said. "But their deaths should inspire us and our political leaders to make this country safer for visitors and for its own people.

"Let us put an end to hateful language and anger which thwarts reconciliation," he said.

Van Rensburg also praised Biehl's work and especially the courage she displayed in coming to Africa.

"Amy came to Africa," he said. "I am sure many people said to her: 'Not there.' I wish they were here today because they would see the love of the community which says: 'We are upset by this event, we are annoyed and we are tired of these senseless killings.' "

Van Rensburg, dressed in white and green robes, also sought to comfort the victim's parents. Their daughter "gave her life for us," he said. "We can tell her parents that we are proud of their daughter. She had a very full life. . . . She had the desire to improve the lives of other people."

The service began when an elderly woman wearing a black beret started a low chant that was followed by a chorus sung by the entire congregation. Two youngsters thumped the wooden panels of a marimba.

A bell was rung and white-clad choir boys and girls marched in with lighted candles and burning incense. A young woman held aloft a color picture of Amy Biehl. Behind her walked a man holding a Bible high. Singing was accompanied by slow clapping and thumping of pews. There were audible sobs during pauses in the music.

As the sun's rays shone through the gold and pink church glass, Amy's picture was then placed in front of the altar.

Young members of the church were prominent in the service, giving special messages to the Biehl family and reading from the Bible. The congregation also joined in singing the rousing unofficial national anthem and hymn, "God Bless Africa."

After the service, while tea was being served, church-goer Johannes Mgudwa said Biehl fell victim to rampant violence that plagues the townships. He said he believed Biehl's slaying was part politics and part thuggery.

Charles Tonga said the service had given the people a "new spirituality."

Gordon Oliver, a former mayor of Cape Town whose term was marked by a concern for the underprivileged, said he still believes that South Africa is relatively safe compared with many other trouble spots.

"It is well worth the experience for visitors to come out here and to see the change taking place and to feel the excitement and mood of renewal," said Oliver, who now heads the Captour tourism authority in Cape Town.

Van Rensburg said some of the church-goers at the memorial service Sunday were from the Church of Lazarus in Washington. They were in South Africa visiting the Soweto townships near Johannesburg when they heard about Biehl's memorial service and decided to attend.

Two youths, ages 17 and 18, have been arrested for Biehl's killing. A South African police official said he expected that the suspects would appear in Wynberg Magistrate's Court today. Police would provide no further information.

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