Effort to replace building with mosque injures 10 Christians, ruins structure.
GARISSA, Kenya, September 29 (Compass Direct News) – A longstanding effort to replace a church with a mosque in Kenya’s northern town of Garissa culminated in an attack by 50 Muslim youths this month that left the worship building in ruins.
The gang stormed the building of Redeemed Gospel Church on Sept. 14 and pelted the congregation with stones, sending many Christians fleeing while others became embroiled in fistfights. Ten Christians received hospital treatment for minor injuries and were released.
Church leaders said the Muslim mob also destroyed pews, damaged the church building’s walls of corrugated iron, smashed the glass-mounted pulpit and burned the church banner with its stand.
“We had just started the Sunday service when, without warning, a rowdy group of about 50 Muslim youths invaded the church, pelting stones at us and destroying our structures,” said the church youth chairman, identified only as Suma.
Local media reported that the 10 church members were hospitalized, but a district nurse at the hospital told Compass that no one was admitted due to the violence. A church elder at East Africa Pentecostal Church in Garissa, about 400 kilometers (249 miles) from Nairobi, confirmed that the church members were treated at the hospital and allowed to go home.
Tensions between Christians and the Muslim-majority population in the semi-desert town of 20,000 people began simmering after Muslims built a mosque next to the church plot at No. 21 Windsor in June 2007. Purchasing its land on Nov. 1, 1999, the church had begun worshipping there by early 2001, eventually growing to 400 members.
Church leaders complained to the district commissioner in June 2007 that the new mosque was built too close to the church – only three meters separate the two structures – and that it was blocking the church entryway.
“Prior to that, the owner of that land had promised to use half of it and sell the other half to the church,” the church leaders reported to the district commissioner in June 2007. “But in 2007, she changed her mind and gave it to the sheikhs to build the mosque. We reported the matter to the DC’s office that it would not go well with the church.”
Officials had ruled that no further permanent structures were to be set up on the land by either party until a later date to be determined by the district commissioner.
“The church faithfully obeyed, but the Muslims defied the orders and began immediately to put up a permanent structure,” according to the letter church leaders wrote to the district commissioner. The building of the mosque was allegedly sponsored by M.K. Roble, a wealthy Muslim in Garissa, according to the letter.
“The problems between the church and the Muslims began and have escalated since then,” it states.
Government security intelligence had reported that Muslims planned to destroy the church if it continued to operate within the residential area, District Commissioner (DC) Alois Okango told Compass. The administration had proposed a new site for the church to worship, Jamhuri Club, but two days before the attack church leaders wrote two letters to Okango saying they would remain worshipping in their building.
“We would like to notify you that our church members have decided to have our Sunday service at our usual place on September 14 and not at the new site of Jamhuri Club,” they wrote in one of the letters, “because we have come to realize that the new site is only temporary, and we will only move out of our premise if we are guaranteed a permanent place of worship.”
Okango told Compass that to avert a crisis, the administration has decided that the church should relocate temporarily to a site near an agricultural showground. The government also advised the church to sell its property near the mosque and buy another piece of land, preferably outside Garissa town center.
This suggestion, Okango told Compass, did not augur well with church members, who felt they had already established the church at the site and that it was the mosque that should be moving.
“The Christians threatened to go and worship in the ruined premises if no action was taken,” Okango said. “They said they were ready to die for the sake of their faith.”
The government is striving to avert further incidents by preventing the Christians from returning to the ruined structure, according to a Provincial Police official identified only as Chelimo. With tensions expected to rise during the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, he said police were taking precautionary measures to ensure that the congregation never returned to their property.
“To allow this would be suicidal,” Chelimo told Compass. “We have deployed five security guards every day to make sure that the members of the church will not enter its structure.”
Wondering why those who attacked the church had not been arrested and charged in court, Redeemed Gospel Church pastor David Matolo said the government should punish the assailants.
“The church has the right to be protected by the government – allowing the minority Christians to suffer is quite wrong,” Pastor Matolo told Compass. “Why should the Muslims interfere with the church’s worship? I as their pastor cannot shy away when my members are ill-treated. We are ready to pay the price, but we want justice to be done.”
He said church leaders had agreed on an alternative site only to have the district commissioner suddenly revoke it.
“The DC had promised to locate us to the provincial residential area, and we had cleared the said site, only to be stopped without prior notice,” Pastor Matolo said. “Now we have no place to worship.”
A missionary from Tanzania who works in the area informed Compass that Muslims have distributed leaflets threatening to destroy all churches in Garissa. They have also threatened to burn Garissa’s open-air market operated by Christians from “down Kenya,” that is, non-Muslims, he said.
The missionary said the safety of the more than 2,000 Christians in Garissa is in jeopardy, and he appealed to the government to protect the right of worship of all people.
“It is quite unfair that the Redeemed Gospel Church has been displaced and is now praying under a tree in an open space with no amenities,” he said.
District Commissioner Okango said that the administration must protect Muslims from the noise of worship emanating from church at night that has disturbed residents, as well as prevent clashes. In both the mosque and church, loud speakers had been set up facing each other with confrontational messages blaring from each.
“The government is sensitive to the feelings of the people,” Okango said. “We cannot allow disorder to reign in North Eastern Province in the name of religious patriotism.”
Land issues alone have not been responsible for tensions in the area. The Rev. Ibrahim Kamwaro, chairman of the Pastors’ Fellowship in Garissa, said Pastor Matolo had offended Muslims when he preached to a lame Muslim man.
Muslims were said to be upset that the pastor persuaded the disabled man to stop going to the mosque and instead join his church. Pastor Matolo’s alleged promise to the disabled man of a better life offended area Muslims, Rev. Kamwaro said.
Muslims restrict churches in Garissa in various ways: Christians are not allowed conduct prayers, sing or use musical instruments in rented homes owned by Muslims. No teaching of Christian Religious Education in schools is allowed; only Islamic Religious Knowledge is taught.
Garissa has more than 15 Christian denominations, the main ones being the East Africa Pentecostal Church, the Redeemed Gospel Church, the Anglican Church, Deliverance Church, the Full Gospel Churches of Kenya, the Africa Inland Church and African Christian Churches and schools.
Report from Compass Direct News