Saturday, January 05, 2008

Christianity in the Kenyan crisis

NCatholic reporter John Allen discusses the failure of Christian leaders to defuse the post election crisis in Kenya.


In this crisis, however, some Christian leaders appear to have inadvertently exacerbated divisions. In perhaps the most prominent example, Njue has twice expressed opposition to the Kenyan concept of Majimbo, referring to a sort of 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 opposition movement, and in the context of Dec. 27 national elections Njue's statement was read as an indirect endorsement of Kubaki, a Catholic. (Odinga describes himself as an Anglican, though some allege he's not exactly practicing.)

--CNS/Paul Haring
Cardinal John Njue of Nairobi

Njue's intent, backed by the majority of the bishops' conference, clearly was to defend national unity. Here's how he explained it in a late October press conference in Nairobi:

"What the country needs now is to be a united nation, and for Kenyans to have a sense of belonging," Njue said. "As the Catholic church, we do not support any particular party, but we have to go by those principles we see are valid for the wellbeing of the nation. We think it would be disastrous if we were to move in that direction. I think we need to help our people mature and to get that spirit of unity."

Njue is not the only Christian leader to express reservations about Majimbo. The Rev. Wellington Mutiso, chair of the Evangelical Alliance of Kenya, also opposes it, saying "The unitary system is best, because as Kenyans we have a major problem with ethnicity, as we are so tribal."

Yet Njue's statements in particular, perhaps because of his cachet of being a new cardinal, seem to have fed ethnic tension. One Protestant leader close to the Orange Democratic Movement called Njue "a mouthpiece of Kikuyu tribes in the Catholic church in Kenya," and a leading Kenyan columnist referred to the statements as a major "goof." (For the record, Njue is not a Kikuyu, but a member of the small Embu tribe.) At least one brother Catholic bishop distanced himself from Njue; Archbishop Zacchaeus Okoth of Kisumu said Njue's position was not binding on Catholics, noting that it had not been expressed in a pastoral letter. (Here, too, some sense the tug of tribalism. Kisumu is overwhelmingly Luo, and a strong base of support for Odinga.)

Perceptions of a partisan stand have been exacerbated by the fact that Odinga signed a "memorandum of understanding" with a Muslim association, creating fears of religious division on top of existing tribal fractures. The Kenyan bishops issued a critical statement about the deal from Rome during their mid-November ad limina visit to the pope, warning that "granting special religious favors during campaign time is wrong."

However justified these interventions have been, the plain political fact is that in a truly free and fair election, Odinga would almost certainly have prevailed, and Njue and the Catholic bishops are now perceived by many of his supporters as part of the opposition. Their challenge thus is to project a model of civic-mindedness, open to all parties and concerned for the common good....

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