Church and State on collision course in Kenya over compliance rules

The Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops says the regulations “will effectively reduce Christianity into a game of numbers, and water down the mission of the Church which is evangelization and assisting people to become better persons.”

Many Christian leaders in Kenya are unhappy with two documents issued this week, one by the Attorney General’s office, titled “Religious Societies Compliance Rules” and the second one published by the Communications Authority of Kenya titled “The Programming Code for Free-To-Air Radio and Television Services in Kenya”.

In an attempt to “regulate” religious institutions in the country, the Attorney General, after two consultative meetings with religious leaders in 2014 and 2015, has now published a list of proposed rules.

They require all religious institutions to, among other requirements, register with the government all branches they operate in the country and to provide an updated list of their members and have their leaders qualified with at least a diploma in theology. The proposed rules also give the state authority to conduct impromptu audits, something that the Catholic Bishops have reacted to yesterday, in a strongly worded statement, saying “the Catholic Church is not a business, neither is it a Non-Government Organization or a civil society. The Catholic Church is a people of God.  As such, the state cannot purport to audit the faith of the people of God.”

The Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops further noted that the regulations were akin to converting “churches into mere registration centres, instead of citadels of hope and faith for millions of Kenyans”. They added that the government’s demand that religious institutions keep records of their members, “will effectively reduce Christianity into a game of numbers, and water down the mission of the Church which is evangelization and assisting people to become better persons.”

Evangelical and Pentecostal groups have been even more vocal in their condemnation of the Attorney General’s move. They claim that the state law office had led them to believe more consultations would take place prior to the publication of any proposals. The academic requirement for preachers came in for heavy criticism, with the Kenyan opposition leader, Mr. Raila Odinga, joining the fray. In a press conference, Mr. Odinga, flanked by a section of Evangelical leaders, pointed out that it would be impractical for the government to require churches to register dioceses separately, as that would be a recipe for chaos. The church leaders feel that evangelization is a calling from God, and the state has no business stipulating whether or not pastors should have a theology degree in order to preach.

A leading Evangelical, Bishop Mark Kariuki demaned that the government rescind the regulations because “2017 is very close”, referring to the Kenyan general elections of August 2017. Opposition leaders are wasting no time in trying to portray the government as being insincere and rolling back gains made in securing fundamental rights and freedoms of Kenyans, saying the rules infringe on freedom of worship.

The radio and television programming code published by the Communications Authority of Kenya, has caused consternation in equal measure. Section 12 of the code addresses religious programs.

Some of the guidelines under this section that have been the subject of fierce debates, include a directive to broadcasters, to “ensure that religious programmes do not improperly exploit any susceptibilities of the audience for such a programme e.g. religious personnel should not misuse religion to exploit audiences by asking them to support them financially or abuse of a person’s belief in order to convince that person to change her /his belief and subscribe to the beliefs of the person challenging her/him.”

A number of evangelical church leaders have stated that this guideline negates the whole purpose of preaching, which, according to them, is to convince their listeners on radio and TV viewers to “give their lives to the Lord”. They also protest that barring them from asking for financial support is dictating to their followers how and where they should give their offerings. The broadcast regulators, on their part, insist that this regulation is meant to protect the public from rogue preachers and con artists posing as religious leaders. They gave examples of investigative reports that have exposed some televangelists who recruited people and coached to appear on their programs to give false testimony as having “received miracles”, acting on camera as suffering from particular ailments and being “cured” after prayers from the preachers.

In 2015, Pastor James Ng’ang’a of the Neno Evangelism Church, was charged in court for causing an accident in which a woman was killed. Witnesses at the scene of the accident claimed that the pastor looked inebriated when he emerged from his car after the crash, and that he got into a second car belonging to an associate, who was following him, and fled the scene. It was later alleged that Ng’ang’a attempted to bribe a police officer and got his driver to take the fall for his actions. There was general public outcry and the government seems to be reacting, but judging from the ire it has drawn from the church leaders it will need to change tack.

President Kenyatta seems to have taken note of the warning from Bishop Mark Kariuki of the Evangelical Church, who said the president would lose votes in the 2017 election. Earlier on Wednesday, Kenyatta instructed the Attorney General “to ensure that all proposals relating to the creation of a framework for religious societies and organizations is undertaken after thorough and exhaustive consultations with all groups, bearing in mind the sacrosanct constitutional principles governing the freedom of religion and worship.” In his statement, the president further directed that the draft rules be “subjected to further vigorous public consultations so that they in no way undermine the fundamental values and principles enshrined in the constitution”.

The Catholic Church has suggested that the spirit of self-regulation should be given space for implementation, adding that she has a Code of Canon Law to guide and regulate her operations. “Only this way can the separation of Church and State as stipulated in the constitution, and indeed, the freedom of worship be guaranteed.”

It will be interesting to observe how the renewed consultations between the state law office and the religious leaders unfold in coming weeks.


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About Allen Ottaro 28 Articles
Allen Ottaro lives in Nairobi, Kenya, where he is a parishioner at St. Paul’s Catholic University Chapel in the Archdiocese of Nairobi. He is a co-founder of the Catholic Youth Network for Environmental Sustainability in Africa, and is the former national coordinator of MAGIS Kenya.