Thomas Mukoya/Reuters
A policeman stands guard inside the Presbyterian Church of East Africa (PCEA) that was attacked by rioting youths in Kisauni, Mombasa, August 29.

Frustrated by lack of protection, Kenyan churches sue government

More than 14 churches have been attacked in Kenya since April, most recently in this week's violence in Mombasa. Church leaders are suing to force the government to defend them.

In the wake of the torching of churches in Kenya's coastal city of Mombasa and grenade attacks on other churches around the country, Protestant leaders are trying a new tack to get more help from the government: they're suing.

Christian leaders say the targeting of churches with grenades, bombs, and guns by suspected members of the extremist Somalia-based Al Shabab Islamist group have gone largely unanswered by the government. A lawsuit, they argue, will force the government to meet what they say are its constitutional obligations to protect all citizens.

“We have instructed a team of lawyers to sue the government in court and to seek compensation for the loss of life for the destruction of churches and property,” said the Rev. Peter Karanja, an Anglican and general secretary of the National Council of Churches of Kenya, on Wednesday. “The government bears full responsibility for the violation of the human rights and fundamental freedoms of the victims who are under its care.”

An uneasy calm that had returned to the city was shattered Wednesday night when a grenade was hurled at the police who have been patrolling the city streets. The attack injured three officers who were part of a contingent of 100 Kenyan paramilitary soldiers, the General Service Unit, which had been send to Mombasa after two days of violence damaged churches, shops, and vehicles. The violence flared after what some say was an extrajudicial killing Monday of Sheikh Aboud Rogo, a radical cleric whom the United States had accused of supporting the Al Qaeda linked Al Shabab and who was awaiting trial on terrorism-related charges.  Unknown gunmen had sprayed a van he was driving with bullets.

Soon after the sheikh's death, Muslim youths descended on churches in fresh attacks that brought the number of churches attacked across the country since April to more than 14.  Attempts have made on others with worshipers being killed, injured, or maimed, said Rev. Karanja, as he stressed this was “an intentional provocation of Christians to retaliate.”

Churches have released a chronology of attacks to argue their case. In 2006, the Nairobi Pentecostal Church was attacked, with one worker dying. In 2010, an attack on a prayer rally in Nairobi Uhuru Park ground left 13 worshipers dead and more than 100 injured. In 2011, an East Africa Pentecostal Church in the town of Garissa was hit with grenades, with three Kenyans dying.

In April, three Kenyans died in another grenade attack on an interdenominational crusade in Mtwapa area in Mombasa, while four died in June in another attack on a church in the Ngara area of Nairobi. In July, 17 worshipers died in an AIC church when suspected Al Shabab militants attacked churches in Garissa. The churches say they are angry because no one has been arrested for these attacks, or those arrested have been released without any charges.

“We have persistently pleaded with the government to take courage and act to stop the scourge of terror. Due to the unfolding insecurity challenges, it is now irrelevant whether the root cause is political, religious, ethnic, or ideological. The main issue is that the intimidation, killings, bombings, and wanton destruction of lives must stop forthwith,” said the Rev. Wellington Mutiso, the general secretary of the Evangelical Alliance of Kenya, whose churches have been most affected.

Since the announcement, civil society groups and analyst have backed the churches' plan, stressing that the denominations have the right to seek justice for their worshipers.

“I think it was the high time the government was taken to task over some of these issues. It has not accepted its responsibility in many occasions and a precedent needs to be set especially, when we are preparing for an election,” says Morris Odhiambo, the executive director of the centre for Law and Research International (CLARION). “The protection of human life is very important and the government must be brought to this reality to ensure security.”

In a related response, Wainaina Ndung’u, the executive director of the International Center for Policy and Conflict, said the government was expected to provide remedy. “The churches have raised a fundamental concern. It is within their right to seek the compensation. They must also ensure there is a deterrent,” said Mr. Ndung’u.

The government could end up paying millions of dollars, as the churches say they will be seeking full compensation for the destroyed churches and lives lost.

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