Multi-billion property wrangles expose churches’ soft underbelly

Police officers stand guard at St Marys Mission Hospital, 2018. [Kipsang Joseph, Standard]

Dr William Charles Fryda landed in Kenya in 1991 as a haematologist and a priest. His mission was to treat the sick and foster peace in some of Kenya’s restive regions.

Eighteen short years later, he would be embroiled in an ugly tussle with some Catholic nuns for the control of a hospital he claims to have helped build.

The dispute over control of St Mary’s Mission Hospitals pitted the former Maryknoll priest against the Assumption Sisters of Nairobi.

Dr Fryda claims to have invested Sh38 million of his own money in the purchase of two parcels of land in Lang’ata, and Sh553 in developing them.

Also in dispute was the ownership of another hospital in Elementaita in Nakuru County said to have cost him Sh365 million to set up. Last year, the Court of Appeal ordered that the two properties be transferred to a limited liability company - St Mary’s Mission Hospital Nairobi - that is directly linked to the nuns.  

This is just one of the many wrangles in the church over the control of multi-million-shilling properties. 

In 2019, a botched plan to sell land belonging to the Nairobi Central SDA Church by a section of church leaders exposed the underlying problems in the otherwise peaceful church.

A splinter group tabled documents which they claimed were proof of attempts to sell the Sh200 million land belonging to the church.

Former Presbyterian Church of East Africa (PCEA) Moderator David Githii, who severed ties with the church in 2014, said one of the reasons he was ousted was his stance on corruption within the church.

“The church has cartels, very rich people who influence elections so that the leaders who come in are easy to manipulate. They take control of the church’s property,” said Rev Githii.

“I was against all forms of corruption and led the reclamation of institutions.”

Githii’s successor, Rev David Gathanju, was implicated in a scandal in which the church is said to have lost an approximated Sh39.9 million.

In 2017, Rev Gathanju was charged alongside other former church employees with conspiring to steal from the church. Rev Timothy Njoya, a retired minister and scholar, said this was an isolated case that did not reflect the state of the church.

“This is loss by an employee as could happen in a company. It was not a church issue. Judas, after betraying Christ, did not kill the church; the church went on,” said Rev Njoya.

“It is the same case here. Implicated persons are charged, but that is it. It is a criminal issue, not an issue of the church or one that affects the stability or continuity of the church,” he added.

On the issue of wrangles in churches over property, Njoya said it is all about gaining control between rival factions.

Without proper structures to define clearly how the properties are administered, he said, the wrangles are inevitable.

David Oginde, the immediate former presiding Bishop of Christ is the Answer Ministries (CITAM), said the weakening of some church structures leads to governance issues. Rev Oginde warned of the danger of registering church properties in the name of individual church leaders or members.

“Such property does not belong to the members and should be registered in the name of the church. No persons should directly own property in this situation,” he said.  In some cases, church members have been known to pluck off roofs or doors that they donated to the church once they become disconcerted with it. 

Oginde said many churches wrongly feel that because of their spiritual orientation, they shouldn’t put in place governance structures and resort to prayers when things go south.

“The governance structures should be there to prevent fights,” he said.

Issues of land ownership have also rocked the Anglican Church of Kenya (ACK). In 2020, the church was ordered to vacate the land it had been occupying for four decades. ACK Archbishop Jackson ole Sapit lamented fraudsters’ tendency to take advantage of religious institutions because they feel “men of God” cannot fight back. 

 “Instead of processing the titles immediately, they (the churches) start developing the property and when brokers discover, they take advantage of the situation by processing titles in different names and later asking the church to vacate the property,” he said.

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