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Pointing Fingers in Kenya

Accusations of foreign Christian meddling fly as a constitution vote looms.

With less than one month remaining until the much anticipated August 4 referendum on Kenya's proposed new constitution, political and religious leaders are trading accusations over the alleged involvement of foreign Christians and politicians in the charged campaigns.

At separate campaign rallies on recent weekends, opponents of the proposed draft accused the Obama administration of meddling while supporters alleged a plot by American and European church organizations to defeat the draft.

One of the major proponents of the draft, Prime Minister Raila Odinga, charged that those opposed to the constitution had received millions of Kenyan shillings from church organizations based in the United States and Europe.

"All they are doing is traverse different parts of the country using their campaigns to mislead Kenyans about the proposed constitution after receiving funding from foreign organizations, but they will not succeed in their mission," Odinga was quoted as saying.

On the other hand, a campaign rally convened by draft opponents accused President Barack Obama of seeking to force Kenyans to accept a flawed constitution.

"The U.S. President is a child of Kenya, but we are asking his administration to let Kenyans define their course. He should also not tie his proposed visit to the country to the passing of the constitution," said William Ruto, the Minister of Higher Education who has defied both Odinga and President Mwai Kibaki and thrown in his lot with church leaders opposed to the new constitution.

The East African nation is approaching the referendum with divisions widening every day. Most church leaders have teamed up with opposition politicians, insisting the current draft is flawed and should not be passed without amendments. These clergy—who represent nearly all of the major mainline, evangelical, Pentecostal, Anglican, and Catholic churches—have been particularly irked by proposals to permit Islamic courts and expand the list of who is able to approve life-saving abortions.

A few Christian leaders have warned that church rhetoric is fast losing its basis in reality. The Daily Nation reported that retired Anglican archbishop David Gitari exhorted attendees at a democracy rally to boycott churches opposing the constitution based on false alarms over its impact, such as the allowance of same-sex marriages and the imposition of sharia law.

“We should read and understand the draft,” said Gitari, according to the Daily Nation. “[Some clerics] have substituted ‘No' for God. Christians should boycott such churches. These peddlers of lies should be smoked out. Their conduct has shown that the church needs redemption.”

Two weeks ago, major Kenyan churches starkly accused their government of responsibility for grenade attacks that killed six people and injured almost 80 at a religious cum political rally the preceding weekend. Three successive grenades shocked the thousands of Kenyans who had flocked to downtown Nairobi's Uhuru Park to pray against a proposed draft constitution that has sharply divided the East African nation.

Although Odinga did not provide any evidence of American or European church organizations meddling in the debate, a local newspaper reported last month that a U.S.-based group opposed to abortion said it was donating thousands of dollars to help defeat the proposed constitution.

The Sunday Nation quoted Jordan Sekulow of the American Center for Law and Justice as saying his organization was working through its Nairobi office to tell Kenyans that the draft constitution would allow abortion on demand.

Sekulow's organization was said to be partnering with Bishop Mark Kariuki of Deliverance Church, one of the main opponents of the draft constitution.

"We go when we're asked," Sekulow told Christianity Today. The East Africa Center for Law and Justice office opened in January after months of discussion with Kariuki and other leaders. The office's executive director is a local attorney, Joy Mdivo.

"Some of the press reports act as if we're just an organization created to oppose a constitution and that's our only purpose. We're looking long-term in Kenya because it's such an influential country throughout Africa … and there's a very strong, vocal Christian community there," said Sekulow. "Yes, the ACLJ through the generous support of our donors is able to empower people in their own countries, but our international offices are run by nationals, and they set the course for how they want to proceed. We would never tell them from the U.S. how to get involved in the system."

The secretary general of the National Council of Churches of Kenya, Canon Peter Karanja, denied that the church coalition was receiving financial help from Christians outside Kenya.

"We are not being funded by any American anti-abortion groups. We have not received any funding from such groups or the so-called fundamental churches, but there would be nothing illegal in such funding. We are inviting Christians and other Kenyans dissatisfied with the draft to freely contribute to the campaign," he said.

These are not the first allegations made of influence by foreign church groups in East Africa's legal affairs. The now-notorious homosexuality bill submitted by Ugandan parliamentarian David Bahati in October 2009 was perceived in many quarters to be inspired by American evangelicals. According to media reports, a special motion to introduce the legislation was passed one month after a conference where three American Christians asserted that homosexuality was a direct threat to the cohesion of African families.

However, the editor in chief of Uganda's second-largest daily newspaper, The Monitor, sees it differently. According to David Sseppuuya, the strong opposition to homosexuality exhibited by the Uganda church was homegrown.

"Uganda, through the ministry of Archbishop Henry Orombi, was one of the provinces of the Anglican Church that opposed the gradual acceptance of homosexuality in the church," he said. "The Anglican Church in Uganda, like that in Nigeria, is a leader in this.

"More importantly, Christians in Uganda know the Scriptures [and] the clear teachings on homosexuality as sin," said Sseppuuya. "These have been taught and emphasized over the years in the different denominations: Anglican, Pentecostal, Baptist, and Catholic. Fellowships, church services, radio and TV evangelism, crusades—all emphasize the biblical teaching on this phenomenon, and there is no mincing and compromising on this."

Related Elsewhere:

Other media coverage of Kenya's constitution debate includes:

Kenya's constitutional vote on sharia courts pits Muslims against Christians | The tussle portends a larger collision between Islam and Christianity in Kenya, a vital U.S. ally in a region where Washington is quietly fighting the growth of Islamic radicalism. (Washington Post, July 7, 2010)
Slain by the spirit | The rise of Christian fundamentalism in the Horn of Africa. (The Economist, July 1, 2010)
The Battle Over Kenya's New Constitution | The debate over the constitution suddenly became much more than an exercise in civics in mid-June, when grenades exploded at a rally organized by churches against the new constitution. (Time, June 29, 2010)

Previous Christianity Today coverage of Kenya includes:

Grenade Attacks Were Govt. Plot, Say Kenyan Churches | Six dead, 80 injured at prayer rally protesting revised constitution. (June 16, 2010)
Leaving Mungiki | Some express skepticism as violent sect receives baptism. (February 11, 2010)
Political Eyes Wide Open | Helping Kenya begins by rejecting simplistic analyses and solutions. (April 7, 2008)

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