The Salvation Army church in Mombasa’s Majengo area stands between Musa Mosque and Masjid Sakina — two mosques once regarded as hotbeds of radicalism.
From the pulpits of the two mosques, fiery sermons blew into the embers of religious extremism.
After the sermons, youths, their blood boiling with fanaticism, pounced on the church with the alacrity of a wolf pack.
In 2012, they poured petrol on the church and set it alight.
In 2013, they returned and again set the church alight. The next year, they stormed in and took off with musical instruments estimated to be worth Sh2.5 million.
These are just the reported major attacks; the church has withstood more. It’s damaged asbestos roof and the soot on the walls of the more than six-decade-old building is a testimony of the attacks it has endured.
The two mosques around it were also on the receiving end after radicals led legions of militants to banish moderate clerics and committees.
Today, after surviving attacks by radicals, Muslim and Christian clerics are determined to reclaim their ages-old harmony, seal the rift caused by jihadist violence and re-establish religious tolerance.
“What those attacks did was to increase our resilience and determination to build good neighbourliness,” says Major Moses Visibwa, the new chief priest of the church.
He concedes that the attacks sowed seeds of discord. Families that lived together in harmony turned against each other. Children stopped playing together on account of their religions.
Last Friday, the two mosques and the Salvation Army church were being spruced up to meet Covid-19 guidelines ahead of their reopening.
The clerics say they meet regularly to foster peaceful co-existence, but doubts linger, and the church is still under 24-hour police guard.
“We have uniformed and plain cloth police officers protecting the church on a 24-hour basis. We will re-open on July 19 and we remain resilient,” says Visibwa.
John Lord, a retired Corps Sergeant at the church, says some worshippers relocated after the last major attack in 2014.
“We lived in harmony and respected each other until religious extremists started to arrive in Majengo at the end of 1990,” he says.
Never been the same
The church, they say, has never been the same again.
“The asbestos roof was destroyed and we have not fixed it. We replaced it with normal iron sheets,” says Visibwa.
He was posted to the church last year, four years after the last major attack. He says he has been trying his best to build bridges between the church and its neighbours.
“Since I was posted here and as directed, I reached out to our neighbours and I’m happy with the talks we have been having,” he says.
Analysts say the attacks on the church were a culmination of a strategy by Islamic extremism that began to grow in Majengo in the late 1990s after the collapse of the Islamic Party of Kenya (IPK).
There are different narratives on what sparked the IPK fallout, but the common one is that Sheikh Aboud Rogo, linked to Somali’s Al Shabaab group and its offshoot Jaysh Ayman he was suspected of leading, wanted to hijack the party and turn it into a religious movement.
It is said other sheikhs, Khalid Balala and Mohammed Khalifa resisted the idea, insisting that IPK’s only agenda was to push for political and economic liberation of the Coast people.
After these differences, those who espoused religious fundamentalism, including Rogo, were banished from Sakina Mosque and sought refuge in neighbouring Masjid Musa.
Masjid Musa was built by the family of former Mombasa Mayor Ali Taib. After the infiltration of the religious radicals following the IPK fallout, the Taib family surrendered the management of the mosque to a committee.
Islamists, however, wrestled the mosque from the moderate committee members and turned it into a hotbed of Jihadism.
The late Rogo’s fiery sermons attracted radical Muslims from Malindi, Kwale, Kilifi, Nairobi, and neighbouring countries of Tanzania and Somalia to Majengo.
Emboldened by the takeover of Musa, the radical clerics violently took over Sakina Mosque and chased away its sheikh, the late Mohamed Idris and Sheikh Khalifa.
The fall of Masjid Sakina
In June 2014, Sheikh Idriss who was also then the chairman of the Council of Imams and Preachers of Kenya (CIPK) was killed close to a mosque near his home in Likoni by militants suspected to be linked to Rogo.
After that, Masjid Sakina fell, and so did Masjid Musa.
As more mosques continued to fall into the hands of radicals, attacks on the Salvation Army church also increased. This were especially fuelled by the killing of radical clerics.
On August 27, 2012, Rogo was killed and his followers attacked the church.
In October 2013, the church was again set ablaze by youths protesting the killing of Sheikh Ibrahim Omar.
The church had relocated from Samburu in Kwale County to Majengo. For decades, it had existed peacefully side by side with the mosques, until Rogo came in.
“(Sheikh) Rogo began to call for an uprising against churches and entertainment joints, saying they were desecrating the Muslim land,” says Suleiman Athuman, 63, a resident of Majengo.
He said the church gelled well with the local community, especially the Muslim youth, because of its rich and unique heritage of instrumental music similar to that of Islam.
The church band, its members donning white uniforms, would march the streets while playing different tunes in a similar manner with Muslim youth bands when playing the Qasida on the streets.
But not everyone agrees that the attacks on the Salvation Army church were religious.
Sheikh Muhdhar Khitami blames the attacks on bad politics fanned by issues around perceived marginalisation and land.
“There are so many churches that have been constructed on land belonging to Muslims with full consent of the community. What happens in Majengo has nothing to do with religion,” he says.
Another Muslim cleric, Sheikh Rishad Rajab, says attacks on the Salvation Army church went against the teachings of Islam.
“We have the treaty of Hudaibiyya made between the prophet and others in Madina to guarantee their rights to be protected by the Muslim State, led by the prophet,” says Sheikh Rishad.
Fighting for the church to remain standing between the two mosques has not been easy, not even for political leaders.
Mombasa Governor Hassan Joho, who has in the past tried to heal the rift, was at one time confronted by radical youths.
Joho has since given the church Sh1 million to buy new music equipment.
(Additional reporting by Ishaq Jumbe.)