Kenya's Churches Enter Fray Against President

Prominent Anglican says Moi regime has been 'weighed and found wanting

Students who protested again yesterday against the repressive regime of President Daniel arap Moi in Kenya picked up an important ally over the weekend: Kenya's churches.

Churchgoers here are not usually described as radicals or agitators, yet from the first rousing strains of "Onward Christian Soldiers" in the All Saints Cathedral last Sunday, it was clear that the church in Kenya meant business.

Less than a week before, on July 7, armed members of President Moi's police had burst into this same cathedral, hurling tear gas, breaking furniture, and savagely beating pro-reform demonstrators, politicians, and even a Presbyterian clergyman who had taken refuge inside. At least nine people were killed by police clubs or bullets as the authorities drove opposition demonstrators from the streets of Nairobi and Thika that day.

Police also briefly invaded the compound of the Christian Science Society to pursue protesters who had taken refuge. Librarian Tom Oyoko said that security guard Nicholas Omondi was assaulted as he tried to prevent police from entering.

Some diplomats worry that the government's continuing reluctance to discuss reform could lead to an armed insurrection.

During his 19-year rule, Moi has skillfully exploited ethnic fault lines in the opposition. His opponents claim he was able to rig Kenya's first multiparty elections in 1992 by a combination of bribery and repression.

The July 7 attack on the cathedral shocked Kenya, a deeply religious nation, and highlighted a point that few outside the country had yet fully realized: that in the struggle against Moi's heavy-handed rule, the mainstream churches are now at least as important as the secular opposition.

Kenya's opposition politicians are regarded by many ordinary Kenyans as self-serving and ineffectual, squabbling constantly among themselves and jockeying for advantage. The Christian churches, on the other hand, seem increasingly to speak with one mind, and in a language the people appreciate.

Witness the slow-fire sermon preached last Sunday by the Anglican primate Archbishop David Gitari in Nairobi. The service was described as a "cleansing" ceremony to bless the All Saints Cathedral following the "defilement" of the week before.

After brandishing aloft two police tear-gas grenades and a broken pick-axe handle recovered inside the building, Archbishop Gitari recalled the fate of the evil King Belshazzar, who defiled the holy chalices from the temple in Jerusalem.

As the king did so, Archbishop Gitari reminded his listeners, a disembodied hand appeared and began writing on the wall. The prophet Daniel, Gitari said, translated the words as "God has numbered the days of your reign. You have been weighed in the balance and found wanting. Your kingdom is at an end."

In case this was too subtle for President Moi, the archbishop added - to the delight of his packed congregation - that the writing would soon be on the wall for the government, too, if it did not agree to a list of reforms including freedom of speech and association and the setting up of an independent commission to oversee forthcoming elections.

The cream of the political opposition and representatives of most of Kenya's religious groups were present to hear the archbishop. They included the fiery Islamic preacher Sheikh Khalid Balala, who had returned from two years in exile only the night before. Afterward the congregation was read letters of support from church leaders around the world.

The government and ruling Kenyan African National Union party did not send a representative to make amends for what - in a belated apology - was called an "error."

After the service Gitari told the Monitor that the churches had always been involved in Kenyan politics, right back to the Mau Mau uprising against British colonial rule in the 1950s. "We're involved because we believe it is part of our mission here," he said.

The churches' involvement in Kenyan politics seems increasingly direct and to the point.

Last week the Anglican, Presbyterian, and Methodist church leaders backed a call from the Roman Catholic bishops for an immediate start to reform.

Over the weekend the National Council of Churches of Kenya said that it was considering joining the political opposition.

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