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Kenya's government curtails freedom for religious leaders in worrying new regulations

21 January 2016

Kenya’s church leaders are protesting against strict new regulations for religious societies that have been announced by the Attorney General’s Office, the Registrar of Societies and the Communications Authority of Kenya. These rules “are aimed at gagging and muzzling the Church in Kenya,” wrote church leaders in Nairobi in “A Message to Christians in Kenya” on 11 January.

The new regulations dictate that pastors must submit a certificate of good conduct and must have a theological degree in order to preach, “yet we know that preaching is a call rather than an academic discourse,” protest church leaders. They point out that several of the apostles themselves were unlearned men.

Under the new Programming Code for the Free to Air Broadcasting, pastors are banned from making appeals for listeners to accept Jesus and for viewers to donate funding. But, “the Church is in the business of spreading the gospel,” protested Mark Kariuki, chairman of the Evangelical Alliance of Kenya. “It is offensive to tell us we cannot invite people to make [a] decision for Christ (on TV).”

Church leaders in Kenya believe the new measures are being justified by the few cases in which religious leaders have broken the law. They argue, however, that the Penal Code already exists to deal with offenders and is sufficient to deal with the problem without the need to introduce more legislation.

Leaders insist that the new regulations are, in reality, a form of government persecution against churches. In the message released on 11 January, leaders from various denominations said that the government had frozen over 7,000 church registrations lodged in 2014 and that not one church had been registered in 2015.

Under the new rules, which are to be gazetted at the end of January and in force after a year, all religious societies are required to submit a statement of faith and they must all be registered under an Umbrella Religious Society - a body which must comprise at least 2,500 registered churches. Each umbrella body is to be registered for a two-year period, and if by the close of the two years it does not comprise at least 5,000 registered churches, its registration will lapse.

According to the Standard, a Kenyan news source, all religious societies will now be required to declare their programmes, ministries, charitable activities and education activities as well as the details of the individuals who will coordinate these.

In their message to Christians in Kenya, church leaders forcefully rejected the new regulations and called on the country’s believers to devote the issue to prayer and to bring the matter - a violation of the Constitution of Kenya 2010 - before politicians and courts.

In the town of Nyere, in Kenya’s Central Highlands, around 300 pastors marched through the town on 12 January to protest against the new rules. According to the Star, a Kenyan newspaper, “they wore red ribbons on their right arms, a symbol that the church is in danger and under attack by the government”.

In numerical terms, Kenya’s Christians represent a significant political force - the Evangelical Alliance of Kenya alone has over 10 million members, representing a third of the country’s electorate - but over the past 15 years, Christian leaders have sensed increasing government pressure.