Kenya church attacks are latest sign of tension between Christians, Muslims

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 6, 2012 


This Christian church in the Majengo district of Mombasa, Kenya, was attacked by rioters following the assassination of cleric Aboud Rogo in August, 2012.


— On the Sunday morning after their church was attacked, forcing their pastor, his injured wife and their daughter to flee, a handful of the curious and devout shuffled through the ring of police outside, through the smoke-stained entrance and gingerly around shards of glass to take seats inside. Shock filled the hushed sanctuary.

The Salvation Army church had stood in Mombasa, Kenya’s second largest city, since before the country was declared independent in 1963. Regulars said they’d always maintained neighborly relations with the impoverished Muslims who lived around them. Now that world of harmony was as shattered as the windows lying around their feet.

"It was as if there was a war here. Stones were flying," recalled Herbert Kaduki, an elder of the church. "They were specifically targeting us."

What now? "We still don’t know," he replied despondently.

Kenya is no Nigeria, where Muslim-Christian antagonism dominates the nation’s politics and roils its hinterlands in fatal clashes every year. Kenya, with a booming economy and a strengthening democracy, is predominantly Christian and the relationship between that majority and the sizable Muslim minority has been mostly friendly.

But that veneer of tolerance was ripped open last week. At least five churches, including the Salvation Army one in the poor Muslim district of Majengo, were attacked during heavy rioting, local religious leaders say. Other churches have been attacked with grenades in separate incidents over the past year.

Behind the violence appears to be an extremist Islamist ideology that’s spreading among the disaffected Muslim communities on the coast and may be fueled by Kenya’s war in neighboring Somalia against the al Qaida affiliate there, al Shabab.

The attack on the Salvation Army church occurred Aug. 27, hours after a radical ideologue and preacher, Sheikh Aboud Rogo, was gunned down on the streets in broad daylight. Kenyan police say they don’t know who the assassins were, an explanation that Muslims here openly deride.

"The police killed him, of course," said Muhsin Swale, who worships at the Musa Mosque, where Rogo preached, just down the street from the Salvation Army.

Even after the police regained control of the streets, and the protests halted, the tensions remained. Four days later, after Friday prayers, Rogo supporters filed out of the Musa Mosque, shouting “Allahu Akbar” –“God is great” – at news cameras waiting outside. Police in riot gear appeared at the end of the street, next to the damaged Salvation Army church, and began to march in, menacingly. At first, the crowd stood its ground, defiantly, before dispersing.

"We are not fighting because we don’t have guns. Just imagine if we had guns," a stocky man with graying stubble said to a reporter before scurrying down an alleyway.

Kenyan authorities downplay the significance of the violence.

"It has nothing to do with religion. These are just thugs versus the law," said Samuel Kilele, the top official in Kenya’s Coast province. Kilele said there was no evidence that any Muslim leader had ordered the churches attacked.

Others hope that the violent response to Rogo’s death serves as a wake-up call for the government to take seriously what they say is a growing terrorism threat in Kenya.

Annual reports by a United Nations commission monitoring alleged support for al Shabab by the tiny nation of Eritrea repeatedly describe Rogo as "a known associate of members of al Qaida East Africa and an advocate of the violent overthrow of the government of Kenya."

The latest report, published in July, details how a Kenya group known to raise money, recruit fighters and plan terrorist attacks in Kenya, the Muslim Youth Center, has continued to operate with "relative freedom."

According to the report, Rogo was closely associated with the Muslim Youth Center, as well as with a similar al Shabab-linked group in Tanzania.

Kenyan police had arrested Rogo several times, but he’d been acquitted in the courts every time; embarrassingly, some say, because his activities were hardly concealed.

"Extremism is growing, not only in Kenya, but all over Africa," said Juma Ngao, a moderate cleric who chairs the Kenya Muslims National Advisory Council. In Kenya, radical ideology is spreading primarily from Somalia, he said. "It is very, very serious."

Ngao blames a host of factors: anti-Americanism, youth unemployment, "bad theology" and opportunists profiting from trafficking fighters into Somalia.

The whittling away at the old social order is also apparent in Kenya’s politics, where a popular, confrontational brand of American-linked evangelical Christianity has inserted culture wars into the national debate, similar to how the Moral Majority group influenced the political conversation in the United States in the 1980s.

The Christian coalition campaigned against Kenya’s new constitution – which eventually passed with 70 percent of the vote in a 2010 referendum – largely out of concern that it would open the door to legalized abortion, which it has not. It also campaigned to end the use of Islamic law through what are known as Kadhi courts, even though its application was limited and used only in cases that involved Muslims. Kenya promised protection of the Kadhi courts when Britain joined the Muslim coastal strip to the rest of the Kenya colony before independence.

Adding to the turmoil here is growing support among Muslims for an outlawed secessionist movement, the Mombasa Republican Council.

Last week, when the riots began spinning out of control, Ngao and other Muslim leaders reached out to their Christian counterparts in an effort to halt the violence before it spread, he said, vowing that Kenya must not be allowed "to become like Nigeria."

But he admitted that some churches refused to participate. Some Muslim clerics shunned the dialogue, too.

"The mad ones," Ngao said, widening his eyes to appear crazed.

Boswell is a McClatchy special correspondent. His reporting is underwritten in part by a grant from Humanity United, a California-based foundation that focuses on human rights issues. Email:; Twitter: @alanboswell

McClatchy Washington Bureau is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service