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.

A Summary of Christian Responses to Persecution in Kenya

Christians in Kenya have responded in different ways to the religious persecution they have experienced at the hands of al-Shabaab. Most Christians in coastal and northeastern Kenya have been on the defensive, fleeing areas under attack and employing strategies of survival. Some have coped with the insecurity by attempting to “pass” as Muslims, taking Muslim names and wearing Muslim clothing. Between 2010 and 2014, al-Shabaab attacks on the northern coast and in the northeast of Kenya became frequent, deadly, and unpredictable enough that many Christians responded by leaving the area.

Christians have also responded by defending themselves against attackers, although there have been disagreements on how best to do this. Many Christians prepare themselves for attacks by training ushers to be on watch for warning signs or stationing police outside their buildings and generally being more alert and cautious. Others arms themselves. The defenses favored by individuals varies, and there is evidence that theologies matter in how Christians may respond to and interpret persecution. This is true within but especially across denominations. While most Christians said they prefer dialogue and reject the use of violence, some feel that peace initiatives are not enough. Many, however, agree that the Kenyan government has relied too much on force, reinforcing al-Shabaab’s narrative of anti-Muslim government oppression, and their efforts have therefore been counterproductive.

Christian leaders have also engaged both local and national governments, with limited results. They noted that some officials seemed to blame Christians for the violence perpetrated on them, warning them not to have prayers at night and to stop all open-air events. As a result, many leaders see Christian unity and greater inter-religious dialogue as the response that holds the most promise for greater security in the short term and for religious freedom in the future. Christians in the northeast and coastal areas have come together across denominations, but very slowly and haltingly. (Many Christian leaders from the northeast and coastal regions of Kenya said that there was a lack of solidarity among Christians in and beyond Kenya, which they attribute to a lack of awareness.) Leaders have sought to bring Christians and Muslims together as a way to build “resiliency” in communities vulnerable to al-Shabaab attacks. This includes participating in interfaith forums and other joint community initiatives with an aim toward reducing the target audience of extremist groups by educating them on religious tolerance, especially at an early age. Some of these efforts appear to be bearing fruit; leaders note that much of the persecution comes from individuals and groups outside the community rather than within it.

Finally, some think that any longer-term solution to the anti-Christian violence along the coast and in the northeast must involve efforts to increase economic opportunities for young people, whether Christians or Muslims, and to foster greater inter-religious dialogue and cooperation. They noted that al-Shabaab has even recruited from among Christian youth in some cities along the coast. According to these leaders, some young people have become Muslims and then engaged in attacks on Christians. To reach vulnerable youth, many Christian leaders said the church needs to use social media more effectively in order to counter the narrative of al-Shabaab.

 

This country profile draws on research by Dr. Robert Dowd and on the report In Response to Persecution by the Under Caesar's Sword project.