Kenya: Pope Francis to visit East Africa as Christians and Muslims fight violent extremism

By Robert Wanjala - 15 October 2015 at 4:32 pm
Kenya: Pope Francis to visit East Africa as Christians and Muslims fight violent extremism

Church leaders, Muslims Imams and community elders participated in a church service during the celebration to mark the International Day of Peace in Kenya last month.

Nairobi, Kenya: It’s all systems go ahead of the state visit by the head of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis, next month. Preparations to receive the Catholic spiritual leader are in top gear even as Muslims and Christians step up joint efforts to end youth radicalisation in the country.

The papal visit comes in the wake of increased interreligious tension and hostility occasioned by frequent attacks by Somali Islamist militant al-Shabaab that has been blamed for stoking animosity in Kenya.

On 2 February this year at least 147 students largely Christians were killed and 79 injured after the Somali terror group attacked Garissa University College located in the dry Northern parts of Kenya. The attack was one of the most spectacular strikes in a series of attacks since 2011 when the government dispatched its military troops to fight alongside African Union’s, AMISON in the conflict-ridden Somali land.

Al-Shabaab, has long tried to play the religious card in their attacks. They, for example, separate Muslims from non-Muslims by having them recite the Shahada; the profession of faith in Allah and Muhammad as his prophet. This way they have proved to be an effective recruiting campaign that has seen hundreds of Kenyans join the militant group.

But playing along this Muslim Christian like war when responding to the attacks, Kenyan security agents have victimized and demonized Muslims and Somalis as terrorists during operations meant to crackdown on the suspected Islamist militants in recent months.

The Garissa and a in a series of other attacks, the government, has responded with a heavy hand targeting Nairobi’s largely Somali suburb of Eastleigh and operations are often seen to widen religious and ethnic divisions rather than help win the war against terrorist activities in the country.

However, recently Muslims and Christians have stepped up efforts to discount the negative perceptions and dismantle the militants’ interreligious war ideology and tension between the two faiths.

A number of community initiatives have come in handy as the faiths seek to bolster their co-existence and relationships in the country.

For the first time ever in Kenyan history church leaders joined Muslims during Friday prayers at Jamia Mosque in Nairobi, in a gesture aimed at strengthening the relationship between the two faiths.

Through prayers, religious leaders said their coming together was to promote peaceful co-existence at the time when the country was facing security challenges that had threatened to divide the population along religious, political and ethnic lines.

“Our brothers and sisters are here as a gesture of the cooperation and understanding that should exist between us. Where there is understanding, there is tolerance,” said Sheikh Abdullatif Essajee when he delivered his weekly sermon to the more than 10,000 congregants. “This is a gesture that we all belong to one human race. We are all descendants of Adam and Eve, meaning we are members of one family.”

“All faiths are inter-dependent and inter-related. No one can live in isolation…we need one another,” he added.

Senator Billow Kerrow said the suspicions between Muslims and Christians had gone up following terrorist attacks in the country but added that coming together would help wipe out such mistrust.

The Executive Director of Global Peace Foundation, Kenya, Daniel Omondi, said the interfaith worship is one sure way of sending a strong message that all humanity is under one God.

“We are saying No to religious intolerance. We are moving away from merely tolerating each other as Kenyans of different faiths and instead actively cooperating with each other to make our communities better. Building understanding and trust is the necessary first step…and we want all pastors and sheikhs to work together in order to rid this country of radicalism,” said Omondi.

Another initiative helping to promote cohesion and integration mainly between Muslim and Christians is sporting events. Muslims and Christians have partnered in gaming activities at schools and in communities to cultivate and encourage tolerance.

“We are moving around telling our young people not to be cheated that such and such religion is bad, join Islam and fight Jihad war. All of us we were created the same and in the image of God. We need to respect each other and everyone’s religion,” said the Chairman of the Council of Imams and Preachers of Kenya (CIPK), Nairobi branch Sheikh Muhammad Khan.

Secretary General of Jamia Mosque AbdulHamid Slatch told Africa Times that for many years, Kenyans of different religions have co-existed peacefully until terrorist attacks begun to drive a wedge between them.

Cooperation among different faiths in Kenya is not new. In 2010 Muslims joined hands with other religion to push for the enactment of the new constitution.

National Council of Churches of Kenya General Secretary Reverend Canon Peter Karanja told Africa times that Muslim leaders have been very vocal against radicalisation and that they have demonstrated commitment to assist Kenya as the nation and the government try to reign in on the criminal elements disguising as Muslims.

“Religion is an instrument of peace and tranquility and instrument of violence and despondence,” Rev Karanja said in an interview with Africa Times. “Efforts between Muslims and Christians in a combined strategy must be nurtured because this [radicalization] is a national challenge that will take all-inclusive contribution to solve.”

On their part moderate Muslim clerics and scholars from six countries are pushing for the review of the Islamic syllabus in schools, madrassas (Islamic religious schools) and colleges in a bid to tame radicalisation.

A Muslim cleric addresses fellow worshippers and Christian leaders during the interfaith service at Jamia Mosque in Nairobi

Over 200 clerics and Islamic scholars who practice the Sufi brand of Sunni Islam from Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo met at MacKinnon Township.

According to Omar Said Omar, the secretary general of the Ahlu Suna Wal Jamaa in Kenya, the Sufis have lived in East Africa since the early years of Islam, and claim to have spread the religion from its cradle in Saudi Arabia, but have come under intense pressure following the advent of radical Islam after the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s.

The Sufis blame radical extremism and terrorism on some violent Salafist groups like al-Shabaab that practice Wahhabi doctrines promoted by Saudi Arabia and countries like Somalia and Sudan.

“About 60 per cent of mosques and madrassas in Kenya are funded by the Wahhabi movement. There was need for the Government to take decisive action to rid the country of the Islamic literature that supports Islamic extremism,” said Omar Said Omar.

Wambugu Nyambura, a Kenyan security expert said religious dynamism was breeding intolerance.

“Radicalization is not only a problem of Muslims. There is Christian fundamentalism taking root in Kenya and this is contributing to the dynamics of religious intolerance in the country, and so we have to look at things collectively because it seems to me that someone is trying very hard to start a religious war in this country,” said Nyamura in article by International Business Times.

Approximately over 82.6% of Kenyans are Christians and an estimated 11% Islamic. Other faiths are Hinduism, Bahai and traditional religions.

An estimated 7.5 million or 33% of the population are Catholics.

During his three-day visit to Kenya, Pope Francis is expected to meet leaders from various religions including Christian, Muslim, Hindu and traditional leaders, as well as meet with youths.

A statement from State house said the Pope is visiting the country as the Vatican’s Head of State, and as a spiritual leader, therefore making his visit both a state and pastoral visit.

“In the short time since his election to office, the Pope has emphasized tolerance and inclusion. We hope that his visit will inspire us to rededicate ourselves to these values, regardless of our political affiliation, religion or ethnicity,” the statement read in part.

The Pope’s visit will mark the second high-profile state visit following the visit by United States President Barack Obama in July this year.

The visit will be his first trip to Africa. His Holiness Francis will also visit Uganda and the Central African Republic. His African trip will run from November 25 to 30.

The Pope had been invited by each of the three heads of states and local bishops.

During his reign, John Paul II, who served from 1978 to 2005, made pastoral visits to Africa a number of times. He came to Kenya three times: In 1980, 1985 and 1995.

Pope Benedict XVI came to Africa just once during his eight-year tenure when he visited Angola and Cameroon in 2009.

Robert Wanjala

Robert Wanjala

Robert Wanjala is a passionate investigative journalist with over five years experience.

Wanjala is very capable at uncovering stories and conducting in-depth analysis on a range of complex issues. He is both gifted with the ability to initiate his own story ideas as well as see fresh angles on existing stories. Wanjala has made a commitment to balanced and independent journalism focusing on issues affecting Kenyan society. He specializes in international criminal justice, transnational justice processes, social justice, human rights, land rights and governance, gender and peace developments. He holds a degree in journalism and mass communication and diploma in peace and conflict studies.

Twitter: @kittsrobert

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