By Linda Burkle, PhD
Fifteen years ago, along with a handful of pastors, I traveled to Kenya to participate and speak at a regional church leaders’ conference. Hundreds of pastors and lay leaders traveled by car, motorbike, and foot to attend the conference, with a desire to be taught, equipped, and refreshed. Some had churches that spanned large geographic areas, with congregants living in rural and remote areas without roads, only accessible by foot. In response, we provided bicycles for several pastors to assist them in visiting their church members. As we spoke with them, they shared their burden of living under imminent threat of violence from Muslim militants. This was a particular concern for those in remote areas with lack of protection who were most vulnerable to this kind of violence. Within days after we left the country, we learned that there had indeed been several such attacks in the area.
Unfortunately, the conditions have only worsened with the rise of groups that cross the border and attack Christians in neighboring areas of Kenya. Much like the Middle East, a variety of Islamic extremist groups perpetrate terrorism and destruction in throughout Africa. While Africa is currently comprised of 55 nation-states, borders are relatively porous and often tribal, ethnic, and religious allegiances are stronger than nationalism. This condition has been exploited by groups such as Boko Haram, AQIM, and Al-Shabaab (“the Youth”), all of which are formally affiliated with Al Qaeda and identified as Sunni Islamists.  In particular, Al-Shabaab, a Somali-based terror group has proven to be a major threat to Kenyan Christians living in areas bordering Somalia. Given the poverty and high unemployment among youth in Kenya, many are recruited by Al-Shabaab with the promise of good jobs. They are converted into Islam, taken to Somalia or Uganda where they are radicalized and trained as militants and come back to Kenya. 
According to the Counter Extremism Project (CEP), “[Al-Shabaab] seeks to establish a fundamentalist Islamic state in the country that it hopes will ultimately expand to encompass the whole Horn of Africa. In doing so, persecution of Christians is not only a human rights issue, but also a demographic and security issue. Although Africa’s Christian population is the largest in the world, continued persecution will result in demographic shifts like those in the Middle East. A Christian-less Middle East and Africa will mean the death of indigenous, advanced, and humanitarian civilizations and their replacement with an extremely violent, hostile, and anti-humanitarian ideology.” 
One pastor who lived and worked in the area shared some insight into the situation in an interview, saying, “In that region in Kenya the tribes are 98% Muslim. They felt that their brothers in Somalia were being killed by the Kenyan government, and these people started revenge-killing people who are not Muslim.” He continued, “The militants are Somali in Kenya. They speak the same language as the people in Somalia. And now they can attack Christians easily.” The pastor went on to say that it seems there is an attempt to “cleanse” the region of non-Muslims. Those who cannot recite certain passages of the Quran are killed. The police also fear these militants and are unable to contain them. In the interview, the pastor cited one incident, during which eight police officers were killed from a landmine while on patrol. “And it’s the people living there—in the mosque and in their relatives’ homes. They don’t give the security officers information about these criminals.” 
William Stark, Regional Manager at International Christian Concern (ICC), agrees, noting that attacks “tend to be clustered near Kenya’s border with Somalia.” He explains further, “This is because the radical groups perpetrating the attacks launch their operations out of Somalia and can hide within the Somali-majority populations living within this border region. … Persecution of Christians living and working in the Kenya-Somalia border region needs to be given greater awareness. Because Kenya is a Christian-majority nation, many people would find it hard to believe that Christian persecution exists there.” 
Kenya has a total population of 52,215,000, with an estimated 42,820,000 Christians. In spite of this, Open Doors ranks Kenya 44th on its 2020 World Watch List, a list ranking the countries with the most Christian persecution; Somalia is ranked third highest.  The report also documents that most attacks are perpetrated by militant Kenyan Muslims and Al -Shabab incursions into predominately Muslim northeast and coastal regions bordering Somalia. These groups are responsible for multiple church and bus bombings, murders, abductions, and other crimes. Hundreds of Christians have been killed; Christian converts from Islam are particularly targeted. The number and frequency of such incidents have increased in recent years. Sadly, corrupt officials and organized crime exacerbate the situation and crimes often go uninvestigated and unpunished. 
A presidential republic with a parliamentary legislature, Kenya has legal protections of religion in its Constitution. Article 32 of the document sets forth guarantees of religious freedom in belief, expression, observance, and nondiscrimination. The constitution also provides for “quadi” courts to adjudicate civil cases based on Islamic sharia law. All religious groups must register with the Registrar of Religious Societies, and in doing so, are provided equal protection under the law. 
While the government provides legal rights and supports expression of one’s religion, it does not adequately protect those who are persecuted because of their religion. Government resources and offices are scarce and sometimes ill-managed. The Kenyan government had plans to install security along the border and build a wall between Kenya and Somalia to control the influx of small arms and bombs. However, because of corruption, the funds were looted and the wall was never erected. 
In its most recent International Religious Freedom Report on Kenya, the US. Department of State highlighted various terrorist attacks over recent years along with the governmental actions taken by Kenya to address such attacks. The State Department has been working through the US Ambassador and Embassy staff to frequently engage with governmental and religious leaders to promote interfaith dialog, appreciation of diversity, tolerance, and diffusion of political and ethnic tensions.  Unfortunately, such diplomatic efforts have proven largely ineffective and sanctions may even need to be considered.
Meanwhile, we continue to pray for the persecuted Christians in Kenya; for their protection, safety, and healing of trauma resulting from violent attacks.
Dr. Burkle retired from The Salvation Army in early 2019 where she oversaw an array of social services in a multi-state region. Along with the State Attorney General, Burkle Co-Chaired the Nebraska Human Trafficking Task Force. Dr. Burkle holds a doctoral degree in international relations. Dr. Burkle has worked with persecuted peoples in a number of countries, and her dissertation focused on religious persecution; specifically regarding Iran, Iraq, Sudan, China and Burma (Myanmar). Dr. Burkle resides in Omaha, Nebraska. She has three grown children and eight grandchildren.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of International Christian Concern or any of its affiliates.
- Johnson T M and Zurio G A, eds., World Christian Database (Leiden/Boston: Brill, accessed April 2019)