Thornton Heath vicar in court over 492 'sham marriages'
A VICAR who may have conducted the most sham marriages in UK history has appeared in court alongside his 79-year-old verger.
The Reverend Nathan Ntege, 53, is charged with 14 immigration offences relating to 492 marriages held over a 15-month period at the Church of St Jude's and St Aiden's in Thornton Heath.
UK Border officials are not yet certain how many of the marriages, conducted between December 2009 and March 2011, were valid.
Ntege appeared at Croydon Magistrates' Court on Wednesday alongside Brian Miller, a verger at St Jude's, who faces the same charges.
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The pair spoke only to confirm their names and addresses before a new court date was set. Neither gave an indication of plea.
The charges follow an investigation by the UK Border Agency's (UKBA) South London Criminal and Financial Investigation Unit. Ntege was originally arrested on suspicion of conducting sham marriages on June 4, 2011. The church was searched as part of the investigation and the Diocese of Southwark and Church of England were informed.
Following further inquiries Miller, of Owl Close in Selsdon, was arrested on November 17.
A third person, Gilena Petkova, 50, is alleged to have acted as a "fixer" for a number of weddings, as well as allegedly being married in a one of the ceremonies herself. She was arrested in Edmonton on December 28, 2011.
On December 14 last year the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) authorised the UKBA to charge Ntege and Miller with one offence of conspiracy to facilitate unlawful immigration and 13 charges of assisting illegal entry.
Petkova has been charged with conspiracy and five charges of assisting illegal entry.
Claire Holder, CPS London reviewing lawyer, said: "Having considered the full file of evidence in this case, I have decided there is sufficient evidence and it is in the public interest to prosecute Reverend Nathan Ntege, verger Brian Miller and Galena Petkova for conspiracy to do an act to facilitate the commission of a breach of UK immigration law by a non EU person and charges of assisting illegal entry.
"The charges relate to approximately 492 marriages at the Church of St Jude's and St Aiden's, Thornton Heath, between December 2009 and March 2011."
Ntege and Miller were bailed to appear for a preliminary hearing at Croydon Crown Court next Friday.
Ntege's was bailed on the condition that he does not attend St Jude's, officiate at a religious building or service and or apply for travel documents.
Petkova is due to appear before Camberwell Green Magistrates' Court on February 7.
In 2010 the Reverend Alex Brown was jailed for presiding over 360 fake weddings in Hastings, in what the CPS described as the biggest sham marriage case it had seen.