As Kenyan churches are struggling to help prevent the country from descending into genocide, they envision a long term healing effort that will require the sustained engagement of international ecumenical partners.
With a death toll increasing by the day and a growing number of internally displaced people, Kenya is facing its worst crisis since independence 45 years ago. After the disputed presidential election of last December over 800 people have been killed, including two members of parliament.
As a result of the violence, several thousand people have fled their homes and are sheltered in some 130 camps around the country. The number of displaced people varies from government estimates of 230,000 to estimates by relief agencies of 500,000.
"As the country is on the verge of genocide", said Canon Peter Karanja, general secretary of the National Council of Churches of Kenya (NCCK), "the churches are taking action at different levels". Karanja briefed an international ecumenical delegation visiting Kenya from 30 January to 3 February, as part of the World Council of Churches "Living Letters" initiative in solidarity with churches facing situations of violence.
Kenyan churches are urging the leaders of the two main parties blocked in the political stand-off, to keep talking to each other. "No one is innocent", said Karanja, "and we pray for the mediation process led by Kofi Annan to bear fruits."
The churches' peacemaking efforts are being conducted through both an interreligious forum and face-to-face encounters between Christian leaders belonging to different ethnic communities. The first of these encounters took place on 30 January in Nairobi and involved some 25 bishops from different denominations, from both the Kalenjin and Kikuyu communities.
Participants left the meeting committed to urge their people to end violence and not to take revenge. "It is a courageous thing for them to have come to this meeting", said Karanja. A similar encounter between Kikuyu and Luo bishops is to take place next week and others are expected to follow.
The interreligious forum brings together representatives of the Catholic, Protestant, Evangelical, African Instituted and Adventist churches, as well as of the Muslim and Hindu communities. Faced with the crisis, it focused its work on promoting political mediation efforts, providing relief aid, coordinating a country-wide prayer movement and reaching out to media outlets in order to promote peace messages.
Even though religious leaders "are been pulled so much by their tribal feelings", said the Anglican Archbishop of Kenya Benjamin Nzimbi, chairman of the forum, "they have been working hard together before, during and after the election asking people to choose peace and prevent chaos".
Kenyan churches are also involved in direct relief efforts to alleviate the consequences of the humanitarian crisis created by the massive displacement of people. The NCCK is currently working in five camps, providing emergency aid and pastoral support with a special focus on addressing the trauma of children.
In the Nairobi area the population "is not very much affected except for the displaced people who are arriving", said Archbishop Njeru Wambugu, from the National Independent Church of Africa. But, adds Bishop Moffat Cleoppa, from the Pentecostal Evangelistic Fellowship of Africa, "we are seeing people giving sacrificially, sharing their resources with their neighbours as never before".
"Apart from all the butchering and displacing, there is still love in Kenya", said Hellen Muchogu, organizer of the women's guild of the Presbyterian Church of East Africa. Wambugu, Cleoppa and Muchogu are members of the NCCK Nairobi regional committee.
Healing the wounds caused by the crisis in the long term will require resources that are beyond the Kenyan churches' capacity. "Everyone, including politicians, expects the churches to play a big role in terms of reconciliation, healing, resettlement and trust building", said Karanja, adding "we will need sustained and committed engagement of our international ecumenical partners if we are to fulfil that role".
In the shorter term, prayer seems to be more urgent. "We need your prayers for people to come back to their senses", said Nzimbi. "We must bring Kenya back where it ought to be."
Juan Michel, who is writing from Kenya, handles media relations for the World Council of Churches; he is from the Evangelical Church of the River Plate in Buenos Aires, Argentina