Bishops of Kenya’s Catholic and major Protestant churches have bowed to state pressure to block politicians addressing congregants from the pulpits, denying the latter a popular campaign platform in the run-up to the next elections.
Catholic bishops in a pastoral letter Wednesday directed their parishes across the country to enforce the ban, citing increased use of places of worship to promote partisan politics and flout Covid-19 related rules against large public gatherings.
Their edict came three days after Archbishop Jackson Ole Sapit, the local head of the Anglicans, denied politicians, including presidential hopefuls Raila Odinga and Musalia Mudavadi, a speaking chance at a consecration service in western Kenya for the church’s first elected female bishop in the country.
The Presbyterian Church of East Africa (PCEA) imposed the first such ban in July, pointing out its concerns about the growing use of the pulpit for divisive politics. Under the public health guidelines meant to contain the coronavirus endorsed by an interfaith council, church attendances in Kenya are currently restricted to no more than a third of the congregation. But the arrival of politicians and their entourage almost always draws larger attendances, breaking the Covid containment protocols.
With the August 2022 elections only 11 months away and large public rallies remaining banned since April 2020, the attraction of alternative political mobilisation platforms such as religious forums has grown. The smaller church groups, which mostly rely on Sunday offerings to run their affairs, have also looked hungrier for donations by politicians after Covid-19 restrictions forced them to shut their doors or admit fewer members into their services. According to the results of the 2019 population census, 85 percent of the 47 million Kenyans counted identified themselves as Christians, 11 percent said they were Muslim while the rest were Hindus, Sikhs, Baha’is or adherents of traditional beliefs.
Of the 85 percent of the population who are Christian, 33 percent are non-evangelical protestants, 21 percent are Catholics, 20 percent evangelicals, with the rest belonging to smaller groups such as indigenous African and Orthodox churches.
Among the presidential hopefuls, Deputy President William Ruto has been the most aggressive in courting the churches, making church tours on Sundays and handing out huge donations especially in the battleground counties in the Mt Kenya region. A self-confessed born-again Christian who in 2019 unveiled a prayer altar at his official residence in Nairobi, Dr Ruto has also sought to play up his faith while caricaturing his toughest challenger in the 2022 presidential race, former prime minister Odinga, as a mganga (Kiswahili for witchdoctor).
In 2010, he joined forces with conservative faith groups in the constitutional referendum’s No Campaign, citing proposal in the amendment Bill perceived as promoting abortion and homosexuality.
Unlike the Deputy President, Mr Odinga, although born an Anglican, doesn’t wear his religion on his sleeve.
His father Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, an independence hero and Kenya’s first vice-president, famously resisted his sons being given Western names during a baptism ceremony conducted by the Church Missionary Society.
The former prime minister has in the past criticised the clergy for accepting the millions of shillings donated by Dr Ruto at church fundraisers, accusing them of abetting corruption.
But in recent weeks, Mr Odinga has also been seen to join the battle for the flock, attending Sunday church services more regularly and dismissing people questioning his faith.
In the wake of the move by the PCEA, Catholic, and Anglican clergy to ban pulpit campaigns, Mr Odinga is among politicians who have said they would respect the decision.
Dr Ruto, who has spent a fortune trying to build a political base in the churches, is unlikely to retreat too fast.