Kenya backs down on attempt to regulate religion after Christian outcry

The government of Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta (L) is attempting to regulate religion.Reuters

Kenya's government has rowed back from moves to regulate the country's churches in the face of fierce opposition from religious leaders.

New proposals unveiled last week by Kenya's Attorney-General Githu Muigai would require all religious bodies to register and for preachers to have police clearance.

All religious institutions would also be required to submit their statements of faith to a government body. Other proposed measures include requiring preachers to undergo theological training at a reputable seminary and requiring foreign pastors to hold a work permit and a recommendation from their government.

However, the proposals were denounced by the Evangelical Alliance of Kenya (EAK), the Roman Catholic Church – to which the country's President, Uhuru Kenyatta, belongs – and by representatives of the minority Muslim community.

In a reflection of the tensions created by the proposals, Kenyatta urged Githu to ensure the new rules are only implemented after "thorough and exhaustive consultations with all groups, bearing in mind the sancrosanct constitutional principles governing the freedom of religion and worship".

A spokesman said: "The President has further directed the Attorney General to ensure that the current draft regulations are subjected to further vigorous public consultations so that they in no way undermine the fundamental values and principles enshrined in the constitution, and which are a way of life for the people of Kenya."

The proposals were aimed at clamping down on rogue preachers and unscrupulous televangelists, themselves the subject of new broadcasting regulations which will ban preachers from soliciting money on air.

The scheme to regulate churches caused outrage when it was announced, with evangelicals threatening political repercussions. It is not clear whether they will be satisfied after the president's intervention.  

According to the Daily Nation newspaper, the EAK said it would launch a campaign to obtain three million signatures to block the government from enforcing the proposals.

"Registration of churches was stopped since 2014. We believe this is meant to stop evangelism and growth of the church since other societies are being registered freely," said EAK chairman Bishop Mark Kariuki. He warned that the move would be an election issue next year, saying: "2017 is very close and we will not hesitate to use those [voter] cards."

He said: "The church in Kenya is under attack... yes, it is under persecution. But do you know why we are under attack? It's because we remained quiet for a long time and we upheld the teachings that if one slaps you on one cheek you should give him the other cheek.

"Now we have been slapped on both sides. We now have to stand up and say nobody spoke about the third slap!"

The EAK claims evangelicals in Kenya number around 10 million in about 38,000 congregations, or 32 per cent of the population.

According to The Standard newspaper, the Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims said the proposals could violate "freedom of worship and amount to a clampdown on religious institutions".

In a letter to President Kenyatta from the Chairman of the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Rt Rev Philip Anyolo and a number of senior Catholic clerics said the new rules would have negative impact on evangelisation and were unconstitutional.

"The Constitution draws a very clear line between the State and religion, while the same law is also explicitly clear on the freedom of worship," they said, adding: "Is this not, therefore, a clear violation of the Constitution?"

The letter also said: "The Catholic Church is a people of God. As such, the state cannot purport to audit the faith of the people of God."