The presidential task force on the review of the legal and regulatory framework governing religious organizations kicked off to a stormy start when Pastor Ezekiel Odero's lawyers walked out of a session the team had organised in Kilifi County on Thursday.
The 17-member committee, chaired by former National Council of Churches of Kenya secretary-general Mutava Musyimi, is expected to submit, to President Wiliam Ruto, a report that will be adopted to guide the operation of religious institutions in Kenya.
Lawyers Cliff Ombeta and Dunstan Omari walked out of the team's first sitting at Juwaba Social Hall alleging discrimination and incompetence of the task force to execute the job.
Ombeta and Omari have been defending Pastor Ezekiel, of New Life Prayer Centre and Church, based in Mavueni, Kilifi County, who was arrested over claims he was an accomplice of controversial preacher Paul Makenzi.
Makenzi has been in police custody, accused of leading a cult. Makenzi's teachings have been blamed for the deaths of over 300 members of his Good News International Church followers who are said to have starved themselves to death on his instructions.
Police also claimed they arrested Ezekiel after deaths were reported on his premises which were allegedly reportedly registered in various morgues and institutions.
The lawyers claimed Rev Musyimi's team denied them an opportunity to represent and present their client’s grievances and memorandum to the task force.
But Musyimi denied the allegation, saying not everyone had a chance to address them at the meeting in Kilifi.
“Not everybody who raised a hand was given a chance to speak. I leave it at that,” said Musyimi.
Omari said they came with a memorandum which they wanted to present as Odero’s grievances but were denied the chance despite putting their hands up continuously.
“We were to invite them to Pastor Ezekiel's church to see what goes on there. The commission is not impartial and we think Pastor Ezekiel will not get any justice. We will go to court and stop the commission. In the meantime, we shall continue to attend their meetings,” said Omari.
During the task force's first public meeting, members of the community and various religious leaders, including Imams, pastors, bishops, and Kaya elders, presented their views and memorandums.
Some of the clerics said the State has no business interfering with church offerings and tithes.
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They, however, criticised the government accusing it of turning a blind eye to Paul Makenzi activities, despite numerous reports that his preaching was misleading.
The main job of Rev Musyimi's team includes identifying gaps that have allowed extremist religious organizations to set up shop in Kenya and formulating a legal framework that will help prevent radical religious entities from operating in the country while informing standards to be used in granting certificates to various religious institutions in the country.
Bishop Mark Kariuki, Bishop (Dr) Eli Rop, Archbishop Maurice Muhatia, Judy Thongori, Rev (Dr) Alphonse Kanga, Bishop Philip Kitoto, and Dr Faridun Abdalla are sitting on the committee as members, according to a gazette notice dated May 5, which indicated the committee will be operational for the next six months.
Other members of the team are Musili Wambua, Joseph Khalende Wabwire, Mary Awuor Kitegi, Charles Kanjama, Leah Kasera, Nancy Murega, and Wilson Wanyanga, while Martin Ndiwa Talian and Maria Goretti Nyariki will serve as the team's joint secretaries.
Ombeta said Musyimi declined to allow them to present Pastor Odero’s memorandum and an invitation to see what happens in his church.
Musyimi said all the parties who presented their views agreed that freedom of worship had been abused by some people.
However, he said the religious leaders were divided on whether the church should be governed by the State or not, with a majority proposing it should self-regulate.
The leaders proposed that there should be an umbrella body to oversee the activities of all registered churches, including their teachings and conduct.
“It is clear from the views that religious umbrella bodies want the power to oversee the registered churches and each religion to have their own structures," said Musyimi.
He said the task force shall hold ten meetings in the Western and Nyanza regions after their sessions at the Coast region.
Mr Shaddrack Nduli, of Evangelical Alliance Churches of Kenya, said there should be a separation of State and the church, which should self-govern.
Nduli said there should be an umbrella body for each religion and each church to be registered and recognised by the government.
He also suggested the devolution of the services of the Registrar of Societies to enhance the verification of religious organisations being registered.
“Certification of preachers should remain a preserve by the religious leaders. Kenya's taxation regime should be revised to leave the church out, and the 2015 regulations to remain,” said Nduli.
Pastor Martin Mutua, of the Nairobi Chapel, said there should be regulations in churches and mosques, to ensure they serve their purposes as religious organisations, lamenting that some people have taken them as an enterprise.
"If a church is not among the stipulated denominations then it should not be allowed to operate in Kenya," said Mutua.
Bishop Jembe Dickson, of Light of God Malindi, said the government cannot regulate churches without the help of religious leaders.
Abubakar Abbas, an Imam, termed total freedom of worship as dangerous and called for civic education to enlighten people on what they should look out for.
Abbas said the task force is irrelevant if the masses are not involved and educated on what the right teachings are.
"There is also the need to eliminate the corruption that has seen authorities turn a blind eye to the Shakahola massacre," said Abbas.
He added: “We blame the police for the Shakahola deaths. The government should conduct civic education in each constituency because total freedom is dangerous,” said Abbas.
According to Emmanuel Munyaya, Kaya elder and religious leader of African religion in Kilifi, religion has been abused by many who are offering wrong teachings.
He lamented that some of the preachers in the region are misleading their members, for instance, by teaching them that elderly people are witches, which has seen some of them killed.
“The prayerful preachers have caused deaths because they will name a person they brand witch in almost every homestead. As a result, several elders have been killed,” said Munyaya.
James Chigodi, of New Life Ministries, said all religions have had problems with the government but the church should be regulated by "a church regulatory board".