How churches have turned into a den of public land grabbers

Some land-grabbing claims start with churches seeking to rent land for a short period before colluding to register it in their names. [File, Standard]

On May 27 this year, the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission began the process of recovering a 26-acre public school land in Homabay County allegedly grabbed by the Seventh Day Adventist Church.

EACC claims that the land was allocated to Nyabola Girls Secondary School in 1968 but was illegally taken by the SDA church which turned the school into a private institution and used part of the land to construct a church and some private residences.

“The parcel of land was originally allocated by the government to Nyabola Girls Secondary School in 1968. It however changed hands illegally and has now been converted into private use by the Kenya Lake Conference of the SDA Church,” said EACC.

The commission summoned officials of the church to explain how they acquired the land as they embarked on a process of establishing the school’s land boundary.

EACC’s move shows a growing trend where churches have been dragged into land-grabbing claims with many court cases revealing the fraudulent means used by religious organisations to dispose of land owners.

Temporary shelter

A taskforce report commissioned by the then-Nairobi Governor Evans Kidero in 2015 revealed that churches are among the institutions and individuals implicated in the grabbing of public school lands in Nairobi after being given temporary shelter to worship.

In one instance, the report alleged that the Presbyterian Church of East Africa grabbed part of Kinyanjui Road Primary School and built another school within the public school while the Revival Church took part of Riruta Primary School and stopped the school from carrying any development.

“There are instances where religious institutions come under the guise of assisting schools to put up facilities like toilets but later ask to be allowed to use part of school land, which they eventually grab and refuse to leave,” said the report.

Kinyanjui Road Primary School. [Jennipher Wachie, Standard]

It is the predicament that has caught 81-year-old Marion Wakanyi Kamau who is not only battling a case against Deliverance Church which took her 1.5-acre land in Lang’ata but also a decision by the Environment and Land Court (ELC) which declined to order the church to vacate her property.

Ms Kamau through lawyer Patrick Rugo in her case before the Court of Appeal claims that ELC Judge Loice Komingoi secretly delivered the decision without notifying her or her advocate even after finding that she was the land owner.

“Her decision was contrary to the evidence on record, including admission of illegalities committed by the church. She made an error in finding that the deed of exchange was binding even after being supplied with evidence that it was a forgery,” said Rugo.

The dispute dates back to 1992 when Ms Kamau was approached by members of Deliverance Church to give them a portion of her land to set up a tent for worship.

Church’s request

Ms Kamau said she owned the original 7.2-acre land and had constructed a school on the portion measuring 5.7-acres when the church through its representatives Geoffrey Njuguna and Jonah Gitonga approached her to allow them to use the remaining portion.

Being a Christian, Ms Kamau allowed the church’s request on condition that they would only put up a temporary tent structure and pay rent for the portion allocated with the arrangement working well until 1996 when the church proposed an exchange of her land with another portion.

However, Ms Kamau claimed that she was forced to terminate the exchange programme in 2004 after realising that the church did not own the land where they proposed to give her.

“I gave my land to the church to give glory to God but they have ended up putting me through a lot of pain. The church is not interested in glorifying God but they have turned out to be land grabbers and land cheats,” swore Ms Kamau.

The church in its response did not deny Ms Kamau’s claims but stated that they had been on the land for over 30 years and made investments on the property worth Sh100 million including the church building which can accommodate 1,500 people.

Justice Komingoi ruled in favour of the church on account that they are already using the land and it will be unfair to evict them with the massive investment already put in place despite finding that the land originally belonged to Ms Kamau.

In Kisumu, the Legio Maria sect lost its claim to a one-acre piece of land it had allegedly grabbed from a dead man to expand their place of worship.

According to brothers Samson Otieno and Maurice Adipo, Legio Maria Church used the forged sale agreement to register a new title. [iStockphoto]

The church sued brothers Samson Otieno and Maurice Adipo for refusing to vacate the land which they claimed belonged to them having bought it from their late father Anton Otieno Okwany.

However, the brothers turned the heat on the church claiming that they forged their late father’s signature to allege that he sold them the land in 2004 when their father passed on in 2000.

According to the brothers, the church had used the forged sale agreement to register a new title and sought to evict them from their inheritance.

Justice Samson Okong’o on May 18 ruled in favour of the brothers and ordered the Registered Trustees of Legio Maria Church to vacate the land after attempting to evict the siblings.

“The church did not explain to the court how it managed to acquire a property registered in the name of a deceased person. They did not even controvert evidence by the brothers regarding the fraudulent acquisition of the land,” ruled Okong’o.

According to the judge, the piece of land was not transferred to the church by the legal representative of Okwany’s estate since they used fraudulent means to convince the Ministry of Lands to register the title in their favour.

He declared that the church acquired the land fraudulently and illegally and ordered that the title held by the church be revoked and the land be returned to the estate of the deceased.

 “The deceased could also not have transferred the suit property to the plaintiff since he had died at the time the property was registered in the name of the church,” the judge ruled.

The Seventh Day Adventist Church (SDA) was also ordered by the Court of Appeal to vacate a children’s home in Kisii County after refusing to leave the premises.

Court of Appeal Judges Hannah Okwengu, Mohammed Warsame and Patrick Kiage ruled that the Millennium SDA Church in Kisii town cannot cling to the land and demand to continue holding prayers on the land owned by the Child Welfare Society of Kenya (CWSK).

Children’s home

The dispute started in 2017 when the CWSK sued the church for taking possession of part of their land and refusing to vacate after breaching the terms under which they were allowed to operate within the children’s home.

Child Welfare Society of Kenya head office, Nairobi. [David Gichuru, Standard]

According to CWSK, some church elders approached them in 2010 requesting a temporary space to put a temporary prayer shed within the children’s home.

Under the agreement, the church was only to construct a temporary structure to be used only on Saturdays, and that the prayers and church activities will not be carried on with so much noise that would interfere with the children.

However, in 2012, CWSK told the court that the church had begun breaching the terms of the agreement by improving the prayer shed to make it permanent and erecting new structures without consent.

The church in defence however stated that they owned the portion of the land which they claimed was not part of the Children’s home and that it was allocated to them by the defunct Kisii Municipal Council in 2012.

Environment and Land Court Judge John Mutungi in 2019 ruled in favour of the Children’s home, stating that a report by the Lands Registrar had established that the church was illegally attempting to grab what it did now own.

It is the decision the church appealed against but the Appellate Court dismissed the claim, ruling that the church cannot be allowed to take advantage of their services to engage in unlawful acts of grabbing other people’s land.

Unlawful acts

“We are satisfied that the church acted inconsistently with the licence granted to them by staking ownership claims to the portion they were permitted to use. The licence that allowed them to operate in the institution’s land is revoked,” ruled the judges.

The Africa Inland Church was also not left behind when they were ordered to vacate a 1.5-acre land in Nyeri they had grabbed from three siblings. Jedidah Wangechi, Simon Muthoga and Elizabeth Wairimu accused the church of grabbing their family land and constructing a kindergarten without their consent.

The church in its defence stated that they bought the land from the late Isaac Kiiru and started building the children’s home and school way back in 1985 and that it was only after the seller died that the siblings started claiming ownership.

However, the court found that the church had no legal title to the land and ordered that it vacates the property.

Nyeri Senior Resident Magistrate MN Munyendo ruled that the siblings had clearly demonstrated they own the land and that it was the church that encroached on it leading to the protracted legal battle.

With the rising cases of churches being accused of grabbing land, the Catholic Church opted for an out-of-court settlement with a group of villagers in Nyeri to return their 600-acre land grabbed by the church during the colonial era.

The church signed the consent with over 300 members of the Mathari Village and recorded by Justice Lucy Waithaka as a final settlement of the dispute.

Under the agreement, the Catholic Church was to cede 600 acres from the expansive 3,700-acre land they own in Nyeri to the squatters who would then withdraw the court cases they had filed against the church.