Ben Curtis/AP
In this photo taken Sunday, Nov. 8, 2015, Catholic priest Nicholas Mutua holds up the Bible during a service at the St. Peter’s Catholic Church in Garissa, Kenya. This Kenyan town in which Islamic extremists killed nearly 150 at a college of mostly Christian students in April offers a snapshot of what France and Lebanon, both targeted in recent attacks, and other countries face - the challenge of harmonizing Christian-Muslim relations at a time of danger from extremists - an issue that Pope Francis is expected to address during his trip Nov. 25-30 to Kenya, Uganda and the Central African Republic.

Pope visit to Kenya: A changing role for a Catholic Church that avoids politics

Since the last papal visit in 1995, the Catholic Church has evolved into an institution that largely keeps silent about politics. But some say its critical voice is still needed.

As Pope Francis brings his message to Kenya this week, he is visiting a Roman Catholic Church whose role in society has shifted dramatically since the last papal visit.

Each of the three times Pope John Paul II came to Kenya – 1980, 1985, and 1995 – the country was in the iron grip of President Daniel Arap Moi, who clamped down on free expression and criminalized opposition groups. 

Under his 24-year rule, the Catholic Church, known as a steadfast provider of social services, became one of the only avenues for dissent. In May 1992, it even called for Mr. Moi’s resignation at a time when speaking out against the president invited arrest and torture. 

“When the pope came that time, the church was very strongly political, it was walking hand in hand with opposition leaders,” says Father Stephen Okello, a philosophy professor at the Catholic University of Eastern Africa and the coordinator for the papal visit.

After Moi left office in 2002, the church’s former opposition allies became the new political elite, and the church emerged as a government ally. Now, two presidents and a new constitution later, Kenya has no shortage of avenues for civil dissent, and the Catholic Church is focused more on ideology and less on politics.

But some wish the church would raise its voice against Kenya's current problems, from corruption and poverty to ethnic strife and religious conflict, though local parishes have often played an important mediator role on the latter.

“The church is one of the few sort of independent centers of power. In the 90s, they could really bring the government to heel when they got their act together,” says political commentator Patrick Gathara.

“[Today] the divide between how the leaders live and the people is so stark. The Catholic Church here has been so silent about it. Compare it with how they were loud during Moi’s time in the 90s and sort of painted themselves as champions of the people. It’s remarkable how silent they’ve been."

Readjusting roles

Of late, perhaps the most controversial thing the church has done is oppose Kenya’s polio immunization campaign, saying the vaccine hadn't been properly tested. Some bishops speculated it was birth control in disguise.

But elsewhere in the region, the church continues to play a political role. In Burundi, plunged into a political crisis when President Pierre Nkurunziza ran for an unconstitutional third term in April, the Catholic Church has been a vocal opponent of Mr. Nkurunziza’s bid. In May it denounced his plans to hold a vote, withdrawing from the electoral commission and giving the political opposition a legitimacy boost.

And in Democratic Republic of Congo, which is also heading into a contentious election, the Catholic Church has supported protests against President Joseph Kabila’s own apparent bid to cling to power. In January, after Congolese security forces killed several people who were protesting a potential delay to elections, leader Cardinal Monsengwo Pasinya issued a statement declaring “Stop killing your people.” 

But in Kenya, the mantle as opposition voice has been passed on, says Father Okello. A new, much lauded 2010 constitution has devolved power and offered greater protection for human rights, emboldening civil society.

“Since we got the new constitution, a lot of freedom has been obtained, a lot of accountability. Even this frequent talk about corruption – it’s not that it’s gotten bigger or worse. There’s more accountability, more transparency for people to denounce these things,” he says.

“Why the church doesn’t seem to be very vocal? The situation has changed quite a lot. There are so many other organizations that have also come up.”

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