Following July 1 attacks on churches in the town of Garissa – close to the Kenyan-Somali border – local Muslim leaders have decided to provide their own protection to the churches of their Christian neighbors. Last Sunday, July 8, local Muslim youths and their leaders patrolled with the police during church services, and no attacks were reported.
The patrols are a strong statement of rejection for the militant methods and ideology of Al Shabab, the Somali Islamist militant group that is suspected of carrying out the July 1 attacks in Garissa. By targeting Christians, militants in northern Kenya appear to be punishing Kenya for sending troops into Somalia to attack Al Shabab, and to prop up the shaky Somali government.
The methods used at Garissa are similar to those used by northern Nigeria’s Islamic militants, Boko Haram. Masked men lobbed grenades at Our Lady of Consolata Catholic Church and Africa Inland Church as worshipers prepared to start the morning service. They shot dead two policemen, stole the policemen's weapons, and began opening fire on worshipers at the AIC. In the attacks, 17 people were killed and 66 others injured.
During his patrol on Sunday, Sheikh Abdullahi Salat, the chairman of the Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims (SUPKEM) in Garissa, condemned the attacks as terrorism and as against the teachings of the prophet Muhammad. Muslims will guard the churches as a sign of solidarity with the Christian minority in the town, he said.
“We are united," said Sheikh Salat. "Anything that will happen to our Christian brothers will also affect us.”
The plan by Muslims to guard churches was announced by Sheikh Adan Wachu, SUPKEM’s general secretary, at a July 4 interfaith press conference in Nairobi. The Christian, Muslim, and Hindu leaders stressed to the public then that this was not a religious war.
“We feel since Christians are a minority, they must be protected in their domain,” said Sheikh Wachu.
Since the escalation of the attacks, anger among Christians has been growing, with many feeling helpless at the government’s inability to protect them.
The police have assigned three armed officers to each church in Garissa, says Philip Ndolo, a deputy provincial police officer, alongside patrols by the paramilitary. More than 700 police officers were being deployed to the region this week.
Some Christian groups now warn they will not “keep turning the other cheek.”
“The church leadership has put restraint on the aggrieved millions, but we can no longer guarantee cooperation if this trend continues,” said the Rev. Wellington Mutiso, the general secretary of the Evangelical Alliance of Kenya.
For months now, churches in cities and towns have been conducting searches on worshipers and cars using metal detectors. Some churches have hired guards or armed policemen who conduct the searches, but with the killing of the two policemen guarding the Garissa AIC, the leaders now say these measures are not enough.
“Our counterparts in Nigeria now preach with their guns on one side and the Bible on the other hand," Mr. Mutiso told the Monitor. "The government of Nigeria has also failed to protect their own, and therefore the church is out protecting itself. Not with 'Rungus' [batons], not with metal detectors, but with guns. If this escalates, that's where we are getting to.”