Could attacks on Kenyan churches spark violent Christian backlash?

July 1 attacks on Kenyan churches close to Somalia killed 17. Kenya has seen a steady increase in terror attacks attributed to Somali Islamist militants, and some worry that Christians may retaliate against Muslims.

Chris Mann/AP
Members of the Kenyan security forces guard the scene outside the African Inland Church in Garissa, Kenya, on July 1.

Almost from the beginning of Kenya's military operation in Somalia, Islamist militants have threatened to bring the war home to Kenyans. 

For nine months, those threats have been fairly empty, comprised of a few lone-wolf grenade attacks on Nairobi bars. But with the July 1 attacks on Christian churches in the northeastern Kenyan town of Garissa, close to the Somali border, militants seem to be borrowing a page from Boko Haram, Al Qaeda-linked militants from Nigeria. Like the Boko Haram attacks, which have killed at least 1,000 people since July 2009, attacks on Christian churches have the potential to stir up sectarian conflict in a religiously diverse country like Kenya, where 83 percent of the population is Christian and 11 percent are Muslim.

On paper, Kenya is the stronger country, with a much more powerful economy, a professional Army, and a relatively tolerant and peaceful society that has avoided the self-destructive civil wars of other African countries. But Kenya's very openness – and its porous borders – could be its greatest weakness in a low-intensity conflict with Somali militants, analysts say, and religion could be the spark that ignites a Kenyan conflict within itself. 

“There is a religious angle to Kenya’s war with Al Shabab," says Dr. Godffrey Ngumi who teaches Religion and Philosophy at Kenyatta University. "The extremists feel they are cornered by an army from a Christian country. Their response is to attack the churches, which for them are weak points. They have not attacked Hindus or Buddhists. When they attack churches, the impact is bigger."

On July 1, suspected Islamists attacked two churches in Garissa, killing 17 and injuring more than 66 people in a style similar to that used by the Nigerian militants. One group shot dead two policemen guarding the Africa Inland Church (AIC), an Evangelical denomination, as another lobbed grenades at Our Lady of Consolata Roman Catholic Church. Islamists then proceeded to indiscriminately shoot the worshipers at AIC using  the dead police officers' weapons.

This attack was the biggest so far in the region where the denominations have been targeted since mid-October 2011, when Kenyan troops rolled into Somalia to pursue Al Shabab. As justification for its Operation Linda Nchi (Operation Protect the Country), Kenya accused the Islamic militants of killing and abducting its nationals, foreign aid workers, and tourists.

Last November, two people were killed and five others seriously injured in grenade attack on the Garissa Pentecostal Church. in the same month, six people died and 13 others were injured in two grenade attacks on a local restaurant.

“The Muslim world is 'jittery,' following revolution inside itself," says Dr. Ngumi, referring to the Arab uprisings that toppled North African governments in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, and that continue to challenge the governments of Yemen, Syria, and Sudan. "Somalia is no exception, and we are going see more of these attacks as we continue with the war. This is a case to learn from northern Nigeria where similar [sectarian attack] cases involving Boko Haram have been occurring.”

Kenya had anticipated the attacks as it went to war and knew there would be such reactions, according to Mutea Iringo, Kenya’s acting internal security permanent secretary.

“There was no option other than entering Somalia," Mr. Iringo said. "If we had not gone there, the attacks would have continued beyond Kenya to the whole of the Horn of Africa.” 

For Nobel Laureate Desmond Tutu, while condemning terrorist activities in all its forms, it is essential to recognize that these actions are energized by vast numbers of young people who work as "foot soldiers" and have reached a point where they feel there are no alternatives to violence.

“They are willing to risk their lives and 'ostracization' from broader society to exercise the only form of voice that they feel is available to them," Archbishop Tutu told a youth leadership forum via a pre-recorded link in Nairobi on June 27. "We must ask why so many young people are willing to ply such a dangerous path.” 

With northern Kenya facing serious underdevelopment and chronic unemployment, AlShabab has lured Muslim youths into joining it by promising a better income and more benefits for defending their faith. 

Muslims aren't the only ones who have unemployed young people with violent potential. It was unemployed youths among the mainly Christian Kalenjin, Kikuyus, and Luos who used mob violence against rival communities following the flawed Dec. 27, 2007 elections. Post-election violence, much of it driven by jobless youths protesting the supposed election rigging of other ethnic groups, killed an estimated 1,300 people, and displaced 600,000 more from their homes. 

One of the great dangers of sectarian conflict such as the Garissa church attacks is that they may succeed, and push members of the Christian community to retaliate against their Muslim neighbors. 

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