Kenya

Today, Christians remain numerically dominant in Kenya and continue to dominate education and political institutions. However, there is rising tension with the Muslim community. Tensions increased after al-Shabbaab attacked a mall in Nairobi and more recently attacked Garissa University, allegedly seeking out Christians and shooting them on the spot. There have been reports of discrimination against Christians in historically Muslim areas of the country and even a report of a pastor found murdered in his Mombasa church. Thus, while Christians have long enjoyed freedom and even privilege in Kenya, they are increasingly under attack by Muslim extremists and tensions between Muslims and Christians continue to rise.

Christian Demographics

Kenya has a population of approximately 46 million people. According to the 2009 census, 82.5 percent of the population is Christian. Protestants comprise the largest numbers of Christians at 47.4 percent of the population, while Catholics constitute 23.3 percent of the population. 11.8 percent of the population are members of other Christian denominations. Muslims make up the next highest religious group at 11 percent of the population.

History of the Kenyan Christian Community

Christianity first came to Kenya in the fifteenth century through the Portuguese, who had economic interests in the area. This contact lasted until the early eighteenth century, when the Portuguese were ousted from Mombassa. A Christian presence reappeared in 1846 when a representative of the British-funded Christian Missionary Society (CMS) arrived in Kenya. CMS missionaries ministered with little success. It was not until the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that missions spread throughout Kenya, with missionaries from CMS, Presbyterians, Baptists, and Catholics, among others seeking to establish themselves during the colonial period. In addition to a strong and vibrant mission community, many Kenyans began to establish independent churches. After Kenya gained its independence from the British in 1963, it remained a Christian country, insofar as Christians were numerically dominant and held the highest government positions. In addition, churches provided health and education services where the government did not do so directly.

Current Situation of the Christian Community

Today, Christians remain numerically dominant in Kenya and continue to dominate education and political institutions. However, there is rising tension with the Muslim community. Tensions increased after al-Shabbaab attacked a mall in Nairobi and more recently attacked Garissa University, allegedly seeking out Christians and shooting them on the spot. There have been reports of discrimination against Christians in historically Muslim areas of the country and even a report of a pastor found murdered in his Mombasa church. Thus, while Christians have long enjoyed freedom and even privilege in Kenya, they are increasingly under attack by Muslim extremists and tensions between Muslims and Christians continue to rise.


To whom do we turn?

How Christians Respond to Religious Persecution:
Lessons from Kenya, Nigeria, and Sudan

Robert Dowd, Ph.D. (University of Notre Dame)

Christians who are persecuted, that is attacked or discriminated against because of their religious identity, are faced with a choice. They may choose to endure, flee, fight, appeal to government, or reach out to those who share religious identity with their persecutors. They may also choose some combination of these responses. 

This study seeks to understand why Christians in three sub-Saharan African countries, Kenya, Nigeria, and Sudan, have chosen to respond to religious persecution in the ways they have and to identify the effects of such choices on the prospects for greater religious freedom in their countries.

In the study, we clearly differentiate the three countries in terms of the types of religious persecution that exist. In Kenya and Nigeria the persecution that Christians have experienced is societal persecution. In other words, the state is not the perpetrator. The perpetrators are societal movements, namely Al-Shabaab in Kenya and Boko Haram in Nigeria. In Sudan, the persecution is state sponsored.  

The persecution of Christians in Kenya by Al-Shabaab and in Nigeria by Boko Haram has been extremely violent and the state in both countries has struggled to protect Christians’ lives let alone their freedom to worship. While Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram have also attacked Muslims they consider insufficiently faithful, they have often killed Christians immediately upon learning of their religious identity. This has been especially true of male Christians. While the persecution of Christians in Sudan has been less violent in nature, there has been systematic discrimination in ways that clearly make Christians second or third class citizens at best.

In Kenya and Nigeria, most ordinary Christians (i.e., Roman Catholics, Mainline Protestants, and Evangelicals) have responded to Al Shabaab and Boko Haram attacks by fleeing areas where such attacks have been most frequent. In both Kenya and Nigeria, Christians who have fled violent attacks make up a growing percentage of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). Many of them, with nowhere else to turn, find themselves in IDP camps. It is estimated there are over 50,000 IDPs in Nigeria because of the Boko Haram insurgency and, as of August 2015, over 70 percent of these IDPs were Christians.

Although some groups of Christians in northeastern Nigeria have chosen to take up arms to defend themselves against Boko Haram, Christians in the area have generally decided not to fight back.

There appears to be a split among Nigeria’s Christian leaders as to the best way to respond to attacks on Christians, with mainline Christian leaders, particularly Roman Catholic leaders, choosing to reach our to Muslim religious leaders and government to develop strategies to weaken Boko Haram, and Evangelical Christian choosing to demand government action and to call for Christians to defend themselves.

In Sudan, discrimination and harassment of Christians intensified after the creation of South Sudan in 2011. Many Christians have simply decided to worship ‘underground,’ seeking to avoid drawing the attention of the state. Many Christians seek ways to leave Sudan, but lack the financial resources to do so. Some have chosen to immigrate to predominantly Christian South Sudan, only to find a civil war that makes life in some parts of that country at least as challenging as life in Sudan.

Christian leaders in Sudan have chosen to appeal to Christians beyond Sudan in a way that does not backfire and end up shrinking the little religious freedom that they happen to enjoy. Christians have responded by enduring the discrimination and worshipping “underground.”  Christian leaders have sought conversations with the government in an attempt gain greater freedom of worship. This has met with some limited successes and appears to have prevented increased persecution.

Preliminary evidence suggests that Christian leaders’ efforts to reach out to Muslim religious leaders have been effective in providing Christians in certain areas of Nigeria and Kenya with greater security. In Nigeria in particular, there are numerous examples of Muslims hiding and defending Christians from Boko Haram militants. These inter-faith efforts to promote religious freedom may also be sowing the seeds of mutual respect and greater religious freedom for Christians and Muslims in the area.