Religious leaders here were once content to minister to their congregations, read from the Bible, and preach about justice from the pulpit.
But no longer.
In an unprecedented show of protest last week, the country's top-ranking Roman Catholic bishops slammed the government during a news conference for the corruption and violence plaguing East Africa's most stable nation. The outrage comes in the wake of the August murder of Rev. John Kaiser, a Catholic missionary from Minnesota who was an outspoken critic of government injustice and corruption during his 36 years in Kenya.
The shift from a hands-off approach to politics indicates that the country's religious leaders are increasingly seeing human rights abuses as political issues they cannot ignore. And political leaders are growing wary since Kenya's pews are full to overflowing every Sunday, and church leaders hold great sway among the faithful.
"The only time the political leadership in this country is threatened is when the religious leaders call for an action," says Musa Mwale, vice-chairman of the interfaith rights group Wellspring of Truth.
"The churches in Kenya," adds a Western diplomat, "have always played an important role, mostly as mediators, but also as advocates of social change and justice. In recent times, they have become even more politically active, but again in a peaceful sense."
Mr. Mwale says the politicians are keenly aware that religious figures now "have a bigger following [and are] listened to, and the leaders have a platform in the churches and the mosques."
An estimated 28 percent of Kenya's citizens are Roman Catholic, 38 percent Protestant, 7 percent Muslim, and the rest follow indigenous or other faiths.
The murder has drawn the attention of the United States., which sent FBI agents to investigate. Kenya's government had little choice in the matter as the country has a murky history of mysterious, unsolved political killings. It also has only just emerged from three years on the international donors' blacklist due to rampant corruption and lack of democratic reforms. So observers say it can't afford even a hint of a cover-up.
"There has been a breakdown of any code of ethics in the country," said the bishops' statement. "The code has been replaced by a culture of greed and corruption. Threats of dire consequences against clergy and poor people if they speak out on injustices are the order of the day."
Senior political figures have in turn verbally attacked the clerics, challenging them to offer evidence that the government played any role in the murder. "Why should I hide anything or anybody if the government had anything to do with it?" said President Daniel arap Moi. "It is not good for people to politicize the death of the Catholic priest."
In urging a thorough investigation of the crime, Anglican Archbishop David Gitari said: "We want the government to ensure that even the big stones will not be spared."
Fr. Kaiser was found shot dead among thorn trees near the town of Naivasha on Aug. 24. At an inquiry into why tribal clashes killed hundreds in the run-up to Kenya's first multiparty election in 1992, Kaiser had testified that two Cabinet ministers had encouraged the strife in a ploy to drive opposition-supporting Kikuyu people off their land. After accusing high-level government officials of stealing land from the poor, he was arrested last year and later threatened with deportation.
His most recent confrontation with a powerful Kenyan involved Minister of State Julius Sunkuli, considered by many to be President Moi's personal preference as successor.
Kaiser helped a female parishioner who claimed that Mr. Sunkuli raped her three years ago when she was 14 and fathered her child. The missionary was killed one week before the court case was due to begin. A few days later, the young woman dropped the charge.
Church leaders bemoan the fact that they are told to stay out of politics. They argue that what the government calls politics - promoting human rights, social and economic justice - is part and parcel of their mission.
"We never do politics for the sake of politics," says Catholic Archbishop John Njenga of Mombasa, on the country's south coast. "Our role is to defend our people."
That role is taking various forms.
Religious groups are at the forefront of the push for constitutional reform in Kenya. They want to reduce the vast power of the president, who is commander in chief of the armed forces, controls the police, names all judges, and directly appoints administrators from provincial to village levels. Moi's party, the Kenya African National Union, has remained entrenched in power since Kenya's 1963 independence.
In its annual survey issued last week, the Transparency International watchdog organization named Kenya the ninth-most corrupt country in the world, on a par with Russia.
"Whether the government kills church and Muslim leaders or not, we will still demand for change," Sheikh Juma Ngao of the Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims said last week.
Archbishop Njenga insists that religious leaders have already helped to reveal injustices that were previously hidden. "Our statements, I believe, do have an effect on the powers that be. We know that as a result of our speaking out, those in authority are more careful."
A Presbyterian minister, Rev. Timothy Njoya, is the winner of this year's human rights defender award from Rights & Democracy, a Canadian group. Its president, Warren Allmand, says Mr. Njoya "is an inspiration to all those who continue to struggle for peace, justice, and equality in Kenya." He was brutally beaten by a gang of pro-government thugs during a peaceful demonstration outside Parliament last year.
"There's more hope in the religious leaders than in the politicians," says human rights advocate Mwale. "They have the potential to change this country." But he adds that religious leaders have been "napping" of late, and urgently need to revitalize their efforts.
Kaiser's murder, though tragic, may provide that wake-up call. Religious leaders of all faiths have condemned his killing and implicitly fingered the government.
"If Kaiser's death was political, it was based on unsound logic," says the Western diplomat. "It will only steel the resolve of those committed to social justice and popular change."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society