Kenya has suffered substantially from terrorism in recent years. The attack on Garissa University in April, which resulted in the deaths of 148 people is only the most recent of these atrocities. Since the bombing of the US embassy in Nairobi in 1988, often seen as Kenya’s first major terror attack, similar events have been met with outrage and anger but have been all too easily forgotten. Christians and churches in Kenya are trying to change this trend by making Garissa the turning point in the battle against al-Shabaab.
Kenyan churches are fighting back against al-Shabaab and adopting messages of defiance in their Sunday sermons. Following the Garissa attack, a church coalition was formed between the Catholic, Anglican, Methodist and Presbyterian Churches as a show of strength and unity. The coalition has warned that it will not kowtow as members of their congregations are killed in what is increasingly being portrayed as a religious war. Rev. Rosemary Mbogo of the National Council of Churches of Kenya declared in a press conference following the Garissa attacks that, “The systematic profiling, isolation and massacre of Christians in different parts of Kenya must stop. While urging our Christians to be peace makers, we will not remain silent as they continue to be massacred.”
Radicalisation is no longer a problem solely for the Muslim community. According to Wambugu Nyambura, a Kenyan security expert at the University of Leeds, “Christian fundamentalism [is] taking root in Kenya and this is contributing to the dynamics of religious intolerance in the country . . . it seems to me that someone is trying very hard to start a religious war in this country." Whilst allies in the war against al-Shabaab are welcome, Kenyan Christians run the risk of falling into the trap laid by al-Shabaab - adding a spiritual dimension to the war which will aid rather than hinder al-Shabaab’s efforts.
Al-Shabaab aims to divide Kenya along religious lines and stoke a civil war between the Christian majority and Muslim minority. By portraying the conflict with al-Shabaab as spiritual warfare, Kenyan church leaders are buying into this narrative and allowing the conflict to become religious, alienating Kenya’s Muslim minority from the fight against al-Shabaab.
The Christian faith teaches its followers to turn the other cheek. However, with al-Shabaab attacks against Christians increasing, it is easy to appreciate that many churches feel they have run out of cheeks. Whilst this feeling is understandable, the Christian community must not act against its interests. By portraying the conflict as spiritual warfare it will deliberately isolate Muslims and other faiths from the fight against al-Shabaab. Kenya faces an increasingly desperate and dangerous situation in which hundreds are being killed. To achieve a solution, unity not division is required.
In neighbouring Somalia, the majority of those who die and suffer at the hands of al-Shabaab are Muslims. Muslims therefore must not be excluded from the fight against al-Shabaab or held accountable for the vile savagery of the group’s activities. With the next general election in Kenya fast approaching, politicians must realise this fact and resist the temptation to use religion for political advantage - dividing the country in order to achieve electoral success.
The goal of al-Shabaab is to incite religious hatred in Kenya. For the time being this goal is failing. However, the Christian coalition must be weary of those within its ranks who are trying to redefine the war as a spiritual battle. This redefinition will only aid the group that has caused so much devastation to the Christian communities which they seek to protect.