Will the government regulate the church post-Shakahola?

In Kenya, to identify as a church or a religious group, you must be registered with the government. [iStockphoto]

The controversy around the institution of the church is nothing new. Kenya is particularly notorious for rogue preachers. For a country grappling with high levels of poverty, a corrupt government and considerable levels of illiteracy, religious fanaticism is almost a given.

Home to about 4,000 churches, Kenya is a largely religious nation, conditions that make the country ripe and open to cases of exploitation of unsuspecting worshipers. Calls for the government to regulate the faith sector have been rampant in recent days, courtesy of the gruesome occurrences in Shakahola village, Kilifi County.

The fourth International Parliamentarians Conference for the Promotion of Freedom of Religion and Belief could not have come at a better time. Parliamentarians from around the globe gathered in Nairobi and for the first time in Africa, for a 2-day conference to discuss freedom of religion and how to foster it.

The theme was "leave no one behind", an almost satirical statement now that pastor Paul Makenzi of the Good News International Church had supposedly promised to leave no one behind before he starved himself to death.

This is not the first time a rogue pastor is hitting the headlines in Kenya. They have come and gone and then come again. Believers in Kenya have seen all manner of prophets, bishops, pastors - gods even.

Maddening is the fact that their crimes of faith do not end once they leave the church. These celebrity pastors take their notoriety beyond the pulpit many a time.

So why does the law seem too slow to catch up with them?

The constitution of Kenya guarantees freedom of worship to all Kenyans. This freedom is not absolute, a sentiment echoed by speaker of the senate, Amason Kingi while addressing delegates at the international parliamentarians' conference on the freedom of religion. According to Kingi, no freedom is greater than the other.

"If I believe that by sacrificing human beings, I am pleasing a higher god, should I therefore say I shouldn't be touched because I am exercising my freedom to religion," Kingi quips

Essentially, the law ought to create a threshold, beyond which certain acts are out rightly classified as criminal.

Both parliament and the senate have a role to play in regulating the freedom of worship. One of the main ways that regulation of freedom of worship is done, is through the registration of religious groups.

In Kenya, to identify as a church or a religious group, you must be registered with the government, courtesy of a law passed by the senate in 2019. This helps to legitimise these groups and ensure that they are not involved in any illegal activities.

With these regulations in place, questions abound on how Makenzi, a man with a well-documented history of extremism has managed to stay beyond police radar despite his prominence and previous criminal activity.

If the speech by the deputy speaker of the national assembly, Gladys Sholei, at the conference is anything to go by, Kenya is quite tolerant to different belief systems and religions. According to Sholei, Kenya is the only country around the world where different religious studies are taught at school. This she says has allowed a majority of Kenyan citizens to be tolerant of each other, belief system notwithstanding.

"The constitution of Kenya states that there shall be no state religion," says Sholei.

But the line between the state and the church has continued to become blurry in Kenya. The government of the day has a particular interest in the church, and its freedoms. On the onset of the Shakahola tragedy, Interior CS Kithure Kindiki that the government will be careful to avoid infringing on the sacred right of the freedom of worship, opinion and belief.

"But at the same time we don't allow criminals to misuse that right to hurt, kill, torture and starve people to death," adds Sholei.

The chairperson of the ethics and anticorruption commission David Oginde who was also present at the 2-day event holds the thought that the government should understand that religion is an emotive inherent part of the nation. Because of this, Kenyans should be involved in the regulation of the church. But many Kenyans have opined that the church should not be regulated, in a country that observes separation of the church from the state.

The culmination of the conference, which is said to have equipped legislators with the necessary tools to deal with modern day challenges on religion and beliefs, came with the signing of the Nairobi Declaration of freedom of religion and belief. This charter is expected to foster the protection of the freedom of religion for Kenyans.

Kenya will have to wait and see how the government moves to deal with the church and its rogue elements, after the rude awakening by the Shakahola massacre.

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