The South African Council of Churches has expressed deep concern at the violence and destruction of property engulfing the country after the imprisonment of the former president Jacob Zuma on charges relating to corruption.
"This violence is resulting in untold suffering," the SACC said in a July 12 statement.
On July 13, the BBC reported that the death toll in South Africa had risen to 72 after violence engulfed parts of the country after the jailing of former President Jacob Zuma.
The toll includes 10 people killed in a stampede during looting the previous day at a shopping center in Soweto, the mainly black city that is part of Johannesburg.
The 79-year-old Zuma was sentenced last month for defying a constitutional court order to give evidence at an inquiry investigating high-level corruption during his nine years in office until 2018.
The military has now been deployed to help the police overstretched since the unrest began last week.
South African police said in a statement that they had identified 12 people suspected of provoking the riots and that a total of 1,234 people had been arrested.
The right to protest must be exercised with responsibility, the churches' statement notes.
South Africa President Cyril Ramaphosa called it some of the worst violence witnessed in South Africa since the 1990s, when apartheid was ending, with this week fires set, highways blocked, and businesses and warehouses looted in major cities and small towns in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng provinces.
The Committee to Protect Journalists said that demonstrators and looters attacked at least four community radio and have robbed and assaulted journalists covering the unrest over the past 10 days.
In another instance a bystander recorded on phone camera a uniformed police officer looting and filling his car up with stolen goods.
The SACC said, "There are some who genuinely believe that Mr. Zuma was denied justice; others explain that he was given enough space to express himself in the judicial system, which he rejected.
"Regardless of what anyone believes, and whether, the public protests result from our limited understanding of the complicated legal processes or not, is beside the point," said the SACC.
PROTESTS OPEN SPACE FOR CRIMINALITY
"The reality is that the protests arising from this have opened the space for large-scale criminality that is fed by poverty, a nothing-to-lose mindset, and the deep-seated anger in the absence of hope.
"In this, we now have wanton destruction and even the possible involvement of organized crime whose purpose will be to undermine the country's institutions permanently. In this category are those who seek to target strategic installations, which takes the problem to another level of calculated lawlessness."
The SACC urgently appealed for an end to the violent protests spilling into criminal acts of wanton vandalism and looting that should not be sustained in a constitutional democracy.
"A nation, whose legal and constitutional institutions are challenged through violence, will take decades of deep suffering, if ever, to recover."
The churches' statement praised the police for "their restraint in handling this vandalism under extreme provocation and physical threats."
They noted that policing is totally overwhelmed, and the military was stepping in to curb the destruction.
"We may yet again face a different challenge of the potential militarization of our society with regrettable outcomes," said the SACC in an apparent reference to the days when churches were at the forefront of the struggle against apartheid.
In the 1980s, the South African authorities brought in the military to help police quell resistance against the racist apartheid system.
The SACC is an ecumenical association of affiliated Christian Churches, and blocks of churches such as The Evangelical Alliance and the Council of African Independent Churches, and the International Federation of Christian Churches.