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Speech by Dr Agnes Abuom, moderator of the WCC Central Committee, 1 October 2016

Speech by Dr Agnes Abuom, moderator of the WCC Central Committee, on 1 October 2016.

01 October 2016

Speech by Dr Agnes Abuom

Moderator of the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches

1 October, 2016


Your Eminence Professor Ahmad al-Tayyeb, the Grand Imam and Sheikh Al Azhar,

the esteemed delegation:

Peace to You All!


I appreciate the title that has been given to our dialogue: “Towards an Integrated World.” I appreciate it for various reasons related to Climate Change, Social Justice, Powerty, Racism and Gender Violence, because it is an important reminder both that we cannot make simplistic divisions, such as between east and west, and because it reminds us that events, actions, movements in certain parts of the world affect and are affected by what happens in other regions. This is what we mean by globalization.

So I am speaking to you as a Christian lay woman from East Africa, specifically from Kenya, but I am very conscious that what is taking place in Kenya is profoundly influenced both by the dynamics of the rest of Africa, and by developments that are taking place outside our continent.

Until fairly recently, Kenya was considered a beacon of interreligious harmony. It had and has other problems – but in terms of Christians and Muslims living together, it was seen as a positive model by many other countries. Although there were Al Qaeda suicide bombings attacking the US Embassy in 1998, this was seen primarily in terms of the world outside Kenya playing out its problems in our country. Clearly, this changed with the dramatic events of three years ago – the siege of the Westgate shopping mall brought Kenya into the unwelcome realization that religiously motivated domestic violence had arrived in the country. That has been reinforced by the dreadful attack on Garissa University College and regular incursions linked to the group called Al Shabaab. Such atrocities have now led to the plan to building of a wall in the north of Kenya.

The reality is that the relationships between the Christian and Muslim communities in Kenya were already strained. The demography of Kenya – with the Muslim community comprising about 20 to 30 per cent of the population, and particularly concentrated along the coast and in the north-east – meant that with some justification the Kenyan Muslim community could feel that Islam and the Muslim community were marginalized within Kenyan national culture. Muslim regions of Kenya are among the poorest and least developed areas of the nation, and many Muslim leaders see this disparity as a result of the corruption and injustice of the government in Nairobi that is led predominantly by Christians.

It is interesting to see how all this is reinforced by perceptions that each community has of the other. Such perceptions have been built up over a considerable period of time and are influenced by the mutual history of our two communities. Many Kenyan Christians consider that the coastal Muslim community in particular is somehow not really Kenyan, they are depicted as “Arabs” – a perception that is in fact reinforced by school textbooks. Christians also tend to emphasize their own role in the independence struggle, and as the architects of modern Kenya. On the other hand, Muslims speak about their long history of urban development and civilization along Kenya’s coast, sometimes implying that the ancestors of modern Kenyan Christians were uncivilized, living in the jungle. Muslims also frequently refer to Christianity as a European religion, the religion of the colonizers. Islam is, therefore, portrayed as the agent of Kenyan civilization, while Kenyan Christians are portrayed as following in the way of their former colonial masters. Each community portrays itself as the true founder of Kenya and depicts the other as essentially “foreign” to the nation.

These notions too often are reinforced by the actions of the government of the day, and the government is frequently accused by the Muslim community of favouring Christians. For example, the paperwork required to establish Kenyan citizenship has been found to be considerably more demanding for Muslims than for Christians. A particular issue which has dominated civic life in the last decade has been the question of the status of qadi courts – Muslim religious courts which can decide matters of personal status, marriage, divorce or inheritance when all parties profess the Muslim faith. Although, as a woman, I might want to question whether under such a legal system my rights would be entirely equal to those of a man, nonetheless I have to acknowledge that such courts have been part of Kenya’s constitutional fabric since independence. Indeed, these courts were given their role specifically to encourage the Muslim dominated coastal regions to agree to become part of Kenya. One of the unfortunate realities is that in discussions about constitutional amendment in Kenya, some Christian leaders have misrepresented the situation regarding such courts, seeking to claim that they are an innovation being forced on the population, rather than acknowledging their role throughout the history of independent Kenya.

The growth of a certain illiterate radicalism and fundamentalism is a feature of life in recent years in both the Christian and the Muslim communities in Kenya. It is a tragic truth that the Westgate attack three years ago seems to have proved to be an effective recruiting campaign for al-Shabaab. Thousands of Kenyan Muslims have joined the militant group. This response must surely reflect the sense of alienation and exclusion segments of the Muslim community feel vis-à-vis Kenyan society and political culture. However, radicalization is not only a problem of Muslims. A comment by Wambugu Nyambura, a Kenyan security expert at Leeds University in England, is telling: “There is Christian fundamentalism taking root in Kenya, and this is contributing to the dynamics of religious intolerance in the country, and so we have to look at things collectively because it seems to me that someone is trying very hard to start a religious war in this country."

The growth of neo-Pentecostalism among the Christian community in Kenya, and other parts of Africa, is a factor that has contributed to the increased sense of mutual hostility between Christians and Muslims. Neo-Pentecostal magazines which easily can be found in Nairobi, often contain testimonies of conversions to Christianity which link Islam with evil spirits. Correspondingly, the practice of confrontational street preaching in Kenyan Islam, what is known as mihadhara, has provided a context in which Muslim speakers try to discredit Christian scriptures, often reinterpreting such scriptures to support their own views.

What both phenomena suggest to me is that the religious leadership, both Christian and Muslim, needs to be more courageous than it hitherto has been. Without directly supporting attacks on the other religion, there have been some occasions when religious leaders have given a sort of silent approval to what their followers are saying and doing. The example of the late Archbishop David Caitari being protected by Imams is an example.

But another essential element for a genuinely peaceful future for the people of Kenya is that religious leaders must foster the importance of learning, and in particular learning about the other. One of the jewels and fruits of the Christian ecumenical movement in Africa is the existence of PROCMURA – the Programme for Christian Muslim Relations in Africa. Although this deeply respected programme is Africa-wide in its scope, it is no accident that it has its main base in Kenya. For over 50 years, it has been seeking to encourage Christians to learn more about their Muslim neighbours, and on many occasions it has offered a platform for those involved in conflict to engage positively with each other. Another very different but equally important programme is the Centre for Christian-Muslim Relations in Eastleigh, which is a slum area of Nairobi. This programme is supported by St Paul’s Christian University of Limuru. It seeks to make a difference in a context in which, because of poverty and illiteracy, religious fundamentalism and its associated tendencies towards violence are prone to develop and flourish. The recent work by a young Muslim scholars BRAVE at assisting - youth to resist radicalization.

What is the message from Kenya to this important meeting for dialogue and peace-building?

First, that integration in our world can work negatively or positively. We in Kenya cannot be unaffected by struggles and tensions beyond our borders. Conceivably, however, we also are able to offer positive stories that influence the wider world.

Secondly, that positive integration and questions of identity are inevitably interwoven. For many people in Kenya, there is clearly a link between religious and national identity. What it means to be both either a Christian or a Muslim and a Kenyan needs teasing out and must be worked on constructively by the Christian and the Muslim leadership.

And thirdly, that issues of religion and violence cannot be considered in isolation from economic, environmental and educational issues. Religion is affected by poverty, deprivation and - above all - illiteracy.

If we want to work for an integrated world, we need to do so with a holistic vision that takes account of all these factors.