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New church laws spur debate in Kenya

Martina SchwikowskiJanuary 19, 2016

Religious organizations are bracing to fight newly-proposed legislation that is aimed at regulating religious practices. Preachers view these rules as outrageous and a violation of their constitutional rights.

Church service in Kenya
Image: Reuters

In Kenya, church leaders have threatened to take government to court. In the first major confrontation with the state in many years, the public in the East-African country is also taking huge interest and are voicing their concern on social media.

The laws recently tabled by government will affect all faiths, including mainstream Christian, Hindu and Islamic institutions, as well as numerous small denominations. Many of them have been accused of conning and brainwashing followers or engaging in radicalization. But Christian and Muslim leaders vowed to fight these laws in and out of the houses of worship and even in court.

Violation of the constitution?

The Roman Catholic Church, the largest denomination in Kenya with more than fourteen million followers, is arguing that the rules are infringing on the right of association and freedom of worship.

According to the new legislation that is not yet implemented, Christian preachers in Kenya must hold theological certificates from accredited theological institutions. Religious organizations must also be registered and open to the registrar's inspection. The rules introduce umbrella bodies that will promote self-regulation and require a declaration of sources of income.

"It is with shock and surprise that the government has formulated new rules, that, if implemented, will have direct and negative impact on our evangelization mission," said Philip Anyolo, Chairman of the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops. "The constitution of the country draws a very clear line between state and religion and is explicitly clear on the freedom of worship. How then, we ask, does the government purport to regulate how Kenyans worship?"

The Conference noted in a statement last week that the regulations were akin to converting "churches into mere registration offices, instead of citadels of hope and faith for millions of Kenyans."

False preachers enriching themselves

While many church leaders feel the church is being persecuted and is under attack, some religious leaders differ.

"I would support regulations, so that we work within a framework and these should affect all religious groups, churches, mosques and others because we serve the public and need to be responsible," said Reverend Sammy Wainaina of the Anglican Church of Kenya.

Kenyas president, Uhuru Kenyatta, asserts that the new rules will help weed out rogue preachers.

"We have a few people whose work is to illegally obtain money from citizens. Their false message to citizens is that they are spreading the gospel or the word of God. But they enrich themselves from the sweat of their citizens," said Kenyatta. He called those false preachers "thieves." According to the government, who introduced the laws at the end of last year, there is a need to deal with religious organizations that have been abusing religious freedom and exploiting their members.

The pope in Kenya
Pope Francis visited Kenya and Uganda in November 2015Image: Reuters/T. Mukoya

The public view

The public is also voicing its opinion on the new laws. Many believe that to require degrees would remove pastors and force many churches to close and that their leaders should be able to decide what good doctrine is. Religious organizations have warned that they will call for mass action to pressure the government to review the proposed new laws.

The Evangelical Alliance of Kenya said it would collect three million signatures to stop Attorney General Githu Muigai from going ahead with implementing the regulations. They condemned the new laws as an attempt to micromanage worship and evangelization. President Kenyatta reacted to the public outcry and has instructed the attorney general to ensure a process of thorough and exhaustive consultations with all groups.

"Why did the government rush?" asked Sheikh Ibrahim Lethome, a leading Muslim scholar and religious caller at Kenya's main mosque, the Jamia Mosque in the capital Nairobi. "The government wants to be seen as if they would be tackle corruption - that is our biggest problem in Kenya."

Lethome confirms that there have been cases of fraud within religious groups and that they have to be dealt with. But he does not support the new laws.

"They are counterproductive because we do have the relevant laws in place to deal with criminals. It just has to be followed through," he said.

Additional reporting from James Shimanyula in Nairobi.