Fr Graham Pugin was injured along with several others in a student protest

A South African priest has been injured after being shot in the face with rubber bullets. He refused to allow police entry onto church grounds to arrest students seeking refuge during a university protest.

Students were taking part in a Fees Must Fall protest at the nearby Witswatersrand University when violence broke out between police and protestors. Students threw rocks and set a bus alight in response to the police force’s use of rubber bullets and tear gas. At least 20 people were injured and 15 arrested according to local media.

Fr Graham Pugin, pastor of Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Johannesburg, stood at the entrance of the grounds with his hand outstretched in order to stop police driving an armoured vehicle into the churchyard. A South African Police Service officer fired rubber bullets in response. Fr Pugin was taken to hospital by a colleague to receive treatment after the incident. Footage on Twitter shows the priest was bleeding profusely from his mouth.

South African news agency Mail and Guardian reported that Fr Matthew Charlesworth, a colleague of Fr Pugin relayed a message from the pastor calling for calm.

Fr Charlesworth said: “He wants you to know he’s receiving trauma care. He kindly asked that you do not react in violence because of him. This church has always been a neutral and safe space and I am horrified.”

The on-going protest caused Witswatersrand University to be closed last month. A proposed hike in tuition fees has enraged students. The tuition is expected to rise by 8 per cent leaving many students from poor backgrounds unable to take their place at the university. Protestors believe that higher education should be free for all students.

The Jesuit Institute South Africa said in a statrement: “The shooting of Fr Graham has shocked and distressed many people, including students. He, along with the Society of Jesus, remain hopeful that a solution can be achieved.

“We believe there needs to be a national mediation effort to resolve the fees issue and stabilise the situation on campuses. We note the establishment of a national government task team on the fees crisis but believe that this alone will not deal with the problem. 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.”