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Issue Date:  January 25, 2008

-- CNS/Georgina Cranston, Reuters

Children displaced by postelection violence prepare food near Sacred Heart Cathedral in Eldoret, Kenya, Jan. 3. The cathedral has sheltered more than 9,000 people fleeing postelection violence.
Church leaders faulted in Kenya

African Christianity must come to terms with 'the contagion of tribalism'


Kenya’s slide into ethnic violence, which so far has left upward of 500 people dead and 250,000 displaced, ought to arouse the conscience of global Christianity, and not just for the usual humanitarian and geostrategic reasons. Nothing less than the shape of Christianity in the 21st century is at stake.

Trackers of Christian trends have long prophesied that the next 100 years will be defined as an “African century.” In the 20th century, sub-Saharan Africa went from fewer than 8 million Christians to an estimated 360 million. (Catholicism went from 1.9 million to 139 million, a growth rate of 6,708 percent.) The dream is that dynamic African Christians might reinvigorate the faith in other parts of the world.

Christianity in Africa tends to be youthful and passionate. Contrary to popular impression, African Christianity is not uniformly “conservative,” but often is an intriguing blend of biblical literalism and progressive social reform.

For African Christianity to fulfill its potential, however, it will have to come to terms with the contagion of tribalism.

Hence the importance of Kenya, a nation of 37 million people that’s roughly 78 percent Christian, with one-third Catholic and the rest spread among a wide variety of Evangelical, Pentecostal, mainline Protestant and African Initiated Churches. Kenya is one of the economic and political powerhouses of the continent. If Christianity can’t make a stand here, it’s a fair question to ask what hope it might have anywhere else.

On Dec. 29, the government of President Mwai Kubaki, a member of the Kikuyu tribe, proclaimed itself the victor in national elections over the opposition “Orange Democratic Movement” led by Raila Odinga, a Luo. While there are 42 ethnic groups in Kenya, the Kikuyu, roughly 13 percent of the population, tend to dominate politics and the economy. The perception of a rigged outcome brought long-simmering resentments to the surface.

In the bloodletting that followed, the Catholic church has done its best to offer solace and safety. Tens of thousands of displaced persons have taken refuge on church grounds in the hardest-hit areas. The church’s charitable agencies are distributing badly needed food, clothing and medical care.

Church leaders have also repeatedly appealed for calm. On Jan. 2, the Catholic bishops, led by new Cardinal John Njue of Nairobi, put out a pastoral letter saying: “We have lived together as brothers and sisters. There is no reason for us to be used to raise our hand against our neighbor because he or she belongs to a different ethnic group or political affiliation. ... We all belong to one family of God.”

Yet many Kenyan analysts believe that church leaders also played some role, however inadvertent, in stoking tensions. Two moments were crucial.

First, in the run-up to the elections, Odinga signed an ambiguous “memorandum of understanding” with a Muslim group that some read as a veiled promise to permit sharia-like legislation in Muslim-dominated regions. That brought a backlash from Christian leaders; the Catholic bishops, for example, issued a statement from Rome during their mid-November “ad limina” visit warning that “granting special religious favors during campaign time is wrong.” Catholic bishops are required to visit Rome periodically to report on their dioceses.

Second, Njue twice expressed public opposition to the concept of Majimbo, referring to a federalist politics in which the country’s regions would gain power at the expense of the central government. Majimbo has been the rallying cry of Odinga’s movement, and Njue’s statement was read by many as an indirect endorsement of Kubaki, a Catholic. (Odinga describes himself as an Anglican, though some allege he’s not practicing.)

Njue’s intent, backed by the bishops’ conference, was to defend national unity, and he is hardly the only Christian leader to express reservations. Yet Njue’s statements in particular, perhaps because of the cachet of being a new cardinal, proved explosive. One Protestant leader close to the Orange Democratic Movement called Njue “a mouthpiece of Kikuyu tribes in the Catholic church in Kenya.” (For the record, Njue is not a Kikuyu, but an Embu.) One Catholic bishop even distanced himself; Archbishop Zacchaeus Okoth of Kisumu said Njue’s position was not binding as it had not been expressed in a pastoral letter. (Here, too, some sensed the tug of tribalism. Kisumu is overwhelmingly Luo, and a strong base of support for Odinga.)

Together, these developments created an impression that Njue and other Christian leaders were taking sides with Kubaki. As one Kenyan academic put it to NCR Jan. 7, “No one, absolutely no one, is perceived as being neutral in the present situation.”

Some analysts have read this perception as a failure in moral leadership.

“The churches were silent when we really needed them,” said Musambayi Katumanga, a political scientist at the University of Nairobi. “We are more harsh with our church leaders because they are the ones who are supposed to stick their necks out on questions of justice and honesty. That is their mission, and they have failed us.”

Catholic layman and Nairobi businessman Joseph Mwangi recently told a local newspaper: “All the churches became divided, and it undermined their ability to speak as authorities above politics. ... In Kenya, there is no church leader with the power of a Desmond Tutu or a Martin Luther King. And we really need one.”

How fair these judgments are will become clear only with time. For now, the challenge facing Christian leaders is to recapture the moral high ground.

Africans are certainly capable of it. One thinks of the famous Christmas sermon delivered in 2005 by Catholic Archbishop John Onaiyekan of Abuja, Nigeria, in the presence of then-President Olusegun Obasanjo. Onaiyekan urged Obasanjo to prepare democratic elections rather than scrapping the constitution so he could claim a third term, saying he must “resist the deadly temptation to want to remain in power perpetually by hook or by crook.” Obasanjo was said to have fumed privately, but eventually relented.

Onaiyekan and Obasanjo are both Yorubans, so Onaiyekan’s willingness to set tribal loyalties aside was, in the eyes of many analysts, potentially decisive in laying the basis for a peaceful transition of power. Many Kenyans believe the Catholic church can still play a similar role in their nation’s crisis, drawing on its reservoir of credibility as a leader of civil society under the regime of former strongman Daniel arap Moi.

On a trip to Kenya three years ago, I was a dinner guest at the residence of the then-Archbishop of Nairobi, Raphael Ndingi Mwana a’Nzeki. After our meal we retired to Ndingi’s living room to sip wine and watch the local evening news. After one especially bombastic politico was interviewed, Ndingi expressed disagreement.

“But, Your Grace,” one of the other clerics in the room playfully chided, “that man is from your people.” (Ndingi is from the Akamba, an ethnic group concentrated in eastern Kenya.)

“It makes no difference,” Ndingi snorted. “Dishonesty doesn’t belong to a tribe.”

That’s a sentiment that merits prayer, and whatever forms of active support the global Christian community can muster.

National Catholic Reporter, January 25, 2008

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