Kenyan church leaders called to firm, common stance on violence

By Ecumenical News International
February 7, 2008

Some Christian leaders in Kenya have commented on what they say is the inability of the country's churches to speak with one voice about the violence that has followed disputed presidential election results, and which has led to the deaths of around 1,000 people - writes Fredrick Nzwili.

"I want to express my concern; we don't seem to be speaking in one voice at this critical time," Anglican Bishop Gideon Ireri of Mbeere in eastern Kenya told Ecumenical News International on 5 February 2008.

The violence in the east African country broke out after the 27 December presidential elections in which incumbent President Mwai Kibaki was declared the winner but which opposition leader Raila Odinga says were rigged.

Some observers have attributed the lack of a united church voice since then to heightened ethnic divisions in the country, something about which church leaders warned before the election.

On 3 February, about 30 Catholic priests in the Homa Bay diocese, a region where the opposition leader Odinga's Orange Democratic Movement has mass support, were reported as saying that they feared being targeted because of statements by the national Catholic leadership.

The Daily Nation newspaper reported that the priests had pointed to a statement by Cardinal John Njue in which he opposed the plans for a federal arrangement for Kenya favoured by the Orange Democratic Movement. The priests said the cardinal's statement was seen as the church's endorsement of the government, although the cardinal also advised the faithful to use their discretion in picking leaders.

A World Council of Churches fact-finding delegation to Kenya said on 5 February that government and opposition parties had reacted coolly to its proposal that the Kenyan churches should be full partners in the mediation process.

The delegation said that political leaders had expressed disappointment about the role of the churches, and had asserted that the churches had taken "partisan" positions during the election process and needed to "heal themselves first".

The WCC group said the general secretary of the National Council of Churches of Kenya, the Rev. Peter Karanja, had acknowledged embarrassment about this situation amongst church leaders, though he had also noted that the churches were "united in their call for peace and reconciliation".

As an example of this, Karanja told the WCC visitors, a memorial service had been scheduled for 15 February for the victims of an incident in Eldoret, where a church sheltering hundreds of people mainly from the Kikuyu tribe was torched, leaving a reported 35 people dead.

The NCCK leader has said that bishops from the two tribes involved in the violence would take part in the memorial service.

"Churches will be conducting joint fellowship meetings where members of the clergy from different ethnic groups may be perceived to have unconsciously taken sides," Karanja told ENI on 5 February. "The results will start to be seen soon. We cannot afford not to speak in one voice." Still, he said it was not "alarming" that clergy may have taken a particular position as individuals and as citizens.

Anglican Bishop Eliud Wabukala of Bungoma said the clergy were called to respond to a "high calling" but that at times they may not be able to do this because of concerns for safety.

"We have never seen anything like this before," said Wabukala. "Priests may need to read the prevailing circumstances and make a judgement."

[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Conference of European Churches.]

Keywords:violence | Peace | Kenya | churches
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