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Ruto's big gamble in bid to tighten the regulation of churches, religion

President William Ruto during a presser at State House, Nairobi. [PCS]

He rode his campaign on a platform of Christianity. President William Ruto was "God's candidate", according to Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua, who made the remark last year as he bashed calls to regulate religious institutions.

The president and his deputy would essentially promise retention of the status quo that has allowed religious societies, churches mostly, to thrive in their numbers, sometimes in violation of the existent regulations.

Ruto's U-turn proposing regulations to govern religious institutions and clerics is therefore, undoubtedly, a political gamble. Two teams that are set to look into the conduct of religious societies were sworn in on Tuesday, setting in motion processes that promise radical regulations to guide the religious sector.

The task force on the review of the legal and regulatory framework governing religious organisations is tasked with proposing reforms, with the Judicial commission of inquiry into the Shakahola tragedy expected to look into the circumstances that led to the deaths more than 100 people.

Former National Council of Churches of Kenya (NCCK) General Secretary, Mutava Musyimi, will chair the task force populated with clerics and professionals such as psychologists, with Court of Appeal judge Jesse Lesit chairing the Judicial commission of inquiry.

Since the world learnt of the cultic deaths at the Good News International Church led by controversial preacher Paul Makenzi, calls to have churches regulated have grown louder. A Senate ad-hoc committee is already working to establish regulations after a fiery debate that proposed the same. Members of Parliament, too, have joined in the call.

As some organisations, such as the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops, have lauded the effort, there are those that criticise it as a persecution of churches, such as the Clergy and Church Association of Kenya, which mainly comprises Pentecostal churches.

The argument for regulation has been that "religious cults" would be exposed, with the counter-argument being that regulations already exist.

Religious establishments are regulated under the Societies Act and the Attorney General's office, through Religious Societies Rules, which guide the registration of faith organisations and clerics.

Among the stringent regulations is a requirement that clerics hold a diploma or degree in theology before opening a church, which came into effect last year after government lifted a ban on the registration of new churches, issued in 2014.

The ban was met with condemnation. Several clerics have publicly opposed the academic requirement, arguing that preaching is a "calling".

Former President Uhuru Kenyatta's government published the guideline to curb the growing number of controversial churches that sold false prophecies and thrived in extortion.

But churches have continued to mushroom. Around Komarock Sector One's Mvinje Court, for instance, there are three churches within a radius of 100 metres. More churches crop up in whatever direction one may take. Dense settlements, such as Kayole, have churches at every turn, outnumbering many other business establishments.

Such are the "small" churches whose interests Gachagua promised a Ruto government would safeguard as he slammed Ida Odinga for proposing strict regulations, saying, "The Church of Christ, for once, has a candidate who is godfearing and respects churches...the church will be in danger if that person (Raila Odinga), wins the presidency."

At the time, Ruto played the religious card in seeking the endorsement of Christians, attending church services where he would dish out donations, and earning criticism from his rivals over the source of his money.

"When you see some of us go to church, lift hands and make contributions, it is because we cannot forget where God brought us from. Some of us have more to thank God for," Ruto said in 2019, a statement meant to endear the Christian populace.

During the 2010 constitutional amendment push, the church had sided with Ruto to oppose the draft, jointly earning 31 per cent of the vote. A resounding defeat though it was, it showed that the church could still be rallied around an agenda.

The church in the 1980s is widely regarded as the most vibrant, given its contribution to the fight for political reforms. Later churches have been accused of cowing to the demands of politicians and ceding their pulpits to political rhetoric.

An evident rise in partisanship has been witnessed recently, with the church being considered as much a platform for campaigns as a public rally. A quid pro quo arrangement has ensured that many politicians have kept mum in the debate to regulate religious establishments, making attempts for regulation futile.

"Naturally, humans seek autonomy from a young age," psychologist Elmard Reagan said of the resistance of religious organisations to regulations. "As we grow, we seek to sustain our level of autonomy and independence as is evidenced in our careers, family, relationships and even religion."

"The problem, however, is when our autonomy is used to bully and influence other people. In this regard when we're questioned, we get defensive and feel an attack on our freedom even if it is meant to benefit us," he added.

Political analyst Dismas Mokua believes it is time Kenyans had a conversation about the said regulation.

"The matter of regulation of religious establishments is delicate and sensitive. This is because matters of faith cannot be subjected to logic," said Mokua. "There is merit in creating a self-regulatory framework around the religious establishment.

Mokua said there is evidence suggesting that some mischievous people are using religious establishments as special-purpose vehicles to mislead unsuspecting folk.

"President Ruto’s move to start this conversation is what is expected of a Head of State. The behaviour of some of the charlatans masquerading as religious/church leaders is a threat to national security. It would be irresponsible for President Ruto to ignore threats to national security," he noted.