Kenyan churches take action in fear of genocide

With ethnic tensions rising in violence-stricken Kenya despite peace efforts, local churches are stepping in to help prevent the country from descending into genocide.

"Everyone, including politicians, expects the churches to play a big role in terms of reconciliation, healing, resettlement and trust building," said Canon Peter Karanja, general secretary of the National Council of Churches of Kenya (NCCK). "We will need sustained and committed engagement of our international ecumenical partners if we are to fulfill that role."

Karanja's statement came just as former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan brokered a deal on Friday between Kenya's rival parties to end post-election violence which has killed more than 800 people and displaced more than a quarter of a million.

The agreement, signed by both opposition leader Raila Odinga and incumbent President Mwai Kibaki, calls for illegal militias to be disbanded and for investigation of all crimes connected to the violence, including those allegedly committed by the police.

Violence had erupted after the Dec. 27 presidential election when Odinga accused Kibaki of rigging the poll to his advantage. The conflict has pitted Kibaki's Kikuyu tribe against other tribes supporting Odinga.

Despite the peace deal, violence in the country once hailed as one of Africa's most stable countries has not quelled. On Sunday, tribal gangs with machetes and bows and arrows faced off in the western town of Sotik.

A day earlier, gangs hunted each other through the streets of Eldoret. And not far from that western town, a mob burned down to the ground the Great Harvest Evangelical Church where at least two people were sheltering. Those inside managed to escape unharmed, a witness said, according to Reuters. The pastor of the church is a Kikuyu.

Kenya's opposition leader, Odinga, called on Sunday for the African Union to send peacekeepers to help stem what he called "appalling" violence, as reported by The Associated Press.

Already mission groups are having to leave the country due to the violence. The U.S. Lutheran Church Missouri Synod has pulled out several missionaries from Kenya while the synod's mission group re-evaluates the situation in the country. The missionaries were relocated to Ethiopia where they will stay indefinitely.

Meanwhile, Kenyan churches are seeking a long-term healing effort that will require the sustained engagement of international ecumenical partners. While still praying for the mediation process led by former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to bear fruits, the churches are conducting an interreligious forum and face-to-face encounters between Christian leaders belonging to different ethnic communities. The first encounter took place on Jan. 30 in Nairobi and involved some 25 bishops from different denominations from both the Kalenjin and Kikuyu communities.

"As the country is on the verge of genocide," said NCCK's Karanja, "the churches are taking action at different levels."

Urging prayer in the meantime, Anglican Archbishop of Kenya Benjamin Nzimbi said, "We need your prayers for people to come back to their senses. We must bring Kenya back where it ought to be."

An ecumenical delegation is visiting Kenya from Jan. 30 to Feb. 3 as part of the World Council of Churches "Living Letters" initiative in solidarity with churches facing situations of violence.