State now shuts troubled SDA church over fears of violence

GSU officers keep vigil at SDA Nairobi Central Church where a church service didn`t go on as planned. [Collins Kweyu]

Tussle for the control of millions of shillings as well as jobs in church-run schools and hospitals is fuelling a violent row that has led to the indefinite closure of Nairobi Central SDA Church (Maxwell).

On Saturday, hundreds of worshipers were ushered to St George’s High School after the State closed the church for fear of violence following wrangles that have persisted for months. Anti-riot police were left manning the church compound.

Apart from the money, jostling to influence a list of delegates to participate in the SDA global elections scheduled next year is also stoking the fierce leadership wrangles.

The Government’s decision was informed by intelligence reports of a likelihood of violence, as the wrangles now appear to have taken an ethnic twist.

Rocked church

The fresh fears were sparked by last week’s announcement of an alleged ex-communication of 15 members accused of being responsible for chaos that have rocked the church. 

On Saturday evening, Nairobi Regional Commissioner Flora Mworia directed that the church premises be closed until warring parties reconcile.

“The church will only be re-opened for fellowship after the wrangling factions resolve their differences,” Ms Mworia told journalists at her Nyayo House office.

The administrator spoke hours after police barricaded the church, situated on Jakaya Kikwete Road, forcing faithful to seek an alternative worship place at St George’s Secondary School.

“What I can say as a pastor; this is a constitutional issue. Our constitution is under trial because we believe that we have freedom of association and worship. Is religious liberty at test?” Pastor Peter Nyaga protested as he directed members to congregate at an alternative site.

Before the incident, the SDA’s Central Kenya Conference (CKC) wrote a letter to Westlands Deputy County Commissioner that sought a clarification over the turn of events.

President of CKC John Kiragu Ngunyi and Pastor Nyaga had met the security committee that resolved to close the church indefinitely, but protested the move on grounds the State was interfering with freedom of worship in the guise of security. 

“In any event, our understanding of the law is that a person’s right of worship cannot be abridged by the threat of other parties to break the law. It’s indeed the duty of the police to protect worshipers exercising their rights rather than block them from exercising that right,” the letter dated August 8, 2019 states.

Although the wrangles were linked to leadership disputes, they have been systematically taking an ethnic twist with a section of the church accusing one community of dominating the other.

The ethic angle has been fuelled by the list of those who are in the de-registered group, with 13 out of 15 coming from one community.

The wrangles are also linked to the fight to control millions of shillings and other resources that include job opportunities in the church, schools and social amenities like hospitals run by Adventists.

This, the group claims, has been orchestrated to silence them ahead of an election expected to be held next year, and ensure the current office bearers have a say in delegates to the polls.  

The wrangles in Maxwell Church were sparked by a dispute on the mechanisms of appointing elders late last year. The elders are crucial in church management and also picking those who will participate in electing officials in the Conference, Union, Division, and General Conference.  

In CKC for instance, there are 16 stations that form the conference. Twelve of the stations are based in one region, two in lower eastern and one each for Nairobi and Kajaido stations.

This means that in an election the region with 12 stations is likely to produce more delegates in spite of Nairobi and Kajiado accounting for 80 per cent of the SDA membership in the CKC.

“What you are seeing in Maxwell is a smokescreen. The real issue is next year’s elections where powerful individuals from the Division, Union and Conference are determined to have friendly persons as head elders and Maxwell has been troubling them,” one member says.

Pastor Nyaga, however, refused to comment on the matter while acknowledging the rift.

“Since the year began we have been having a few challenges, but we are trying to sort them out. These are internal issues that the church has mechanism of settling and for sure as a pastor it didn’t require this stage. I don’t want to speak more,” he said.

The East and Central Africa Division (ECAD) that is composed of 11 countries administers the SDA church in the country and is based in Ongata Rongai being a division of the General Conference (CG) that is the governing organisation of SDA church based in Maryland, USA.

The East and Central Africa Division with about 4 million members is headed by a Kenyan, Dr Blasiuos Ruguri as President while Madagascar’s Alain Coralie serves as executive secretary and Jerome Habimana (Burundian) as Treasurer. The Division runs the Adventist University of Africa.

Under the Division is the East Kenya Union Conference (EKUC) based at the troubled Central SDA church and headed by pastor Samuel Makori (president), Alfred Marundu (executive secretary) and Nehemiah Maiywa (treasurer).

The Union runs five conferences — CKC based in Karura, Central Rift Valley Conference based in Nakuru, South Kenya Conference based in Kisii, Nyamira Conference (Nyamira) and Kenya Coast Filed (Mombasa).

The conflict-laden Nairobi Central SDA church is administered by the CKC whose President is Pastor John Ngunyi Kiragu, Reuben Marambii (secretary) and Kioko (treasurer).

Meanwhile, Nyando MP Jared Okello now wants his colleagues professing the faith to intervene into the wrangles facing Maxwell SDA Church.

Ungodly acts

Okello who is a member of Othoo SDA Church in Nyando, termed the ongoing wrangles as ungodly acts which are likely to split the church if not solved with speed.

“I am reaching out to my fellow legislators who profess the Adventist faith, governors and senior government officials to set a date to meet both camps separately and later together to address the concerns before it spirals out of control. Christ is about unity and not disunity or dismembering flock,” said Okello. [Additional reporting by Kevin Omollo]