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SSouth Africa's first church was built in 1665 when the Dutch Reformed Groote Kerk was built in Cape Town. Today there are thousands serving congregations from all the major denominations. Notable among them are those that contributed significantly to the freedom struggle.
The history of churches in South Africa stretches back to the arrival of Dutch settlers at the Cape in 1652. They brought with them the Dutch Reformed faith and in 1665 built the first South African church, the Groote Kerk (Great Church) in Cape Town.
It remains the most important Dutch Reformed church in the country, notable also for its enormous organ that, with 5 917 pipes, is the largest in South Africa.
As the Dutch established new settlements, these were always built around an imposing church, most of which remain and are the first buildings the visitor sees when approaching a town. Churches in South Africa became more diverse with the arrival of other settlers, especially the British. Grahamstown has so many churches that it is known as the City of Saints.
Among the more interesting South African churches are the Italian Prisoner of War Church in Pietermaritzburg and the Dutch Reformed Church in Cradock, Eastern Cape, designed along the lines of St Martins-in-the-Field in London. Surely the most eccentric is the Herbert Baker-designed Church of St John the Baptist outside Vaalwater, which holds only 20 people.
The first people of colour to be converted to Christianity were slaves. As missionaries moved into the interior so the following grew. Today the African Independent Church is the largest in South Africa, with the Zionist Christian Church boasting more than 5-million congregants.
During the South African (Second Anglo-Boer) War, the tallest church in a specific town was often used as a look-out tower by the occupying forces.
But perhaps the latter day's most famous South African churches are those that were at the forefront of the freedom struggle. The most notable of these are the St George's Cathedral in Cape Town; the Christ the King Anglican Church in Sophiatown; the Central Methodist Church in Johannesburg; and Regina Mundi, the largest Catholic Church in Soweto, which still has bullet holes in the walls.