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Kenyan bishops throw politicians out of the pulpit

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By OTIENO OTIENO

The bishops of Kenya’s main Catholic and Protestant churches have bowed to state pressure to prevent politicians from speaking to worshipers from pulpits, denying them a popular campaign platform as the next few draw near. elections.

Catholic bishops, in a pastoral letter on Wednesday, ordered their parishes across the country to enforce the ban, citing increased use of places of worship to promote partisan politics and flout Covid-19 related rules against large public gatherings.

Their edict came three days after Archbishop Jackson Ole Sapit, the local leader of the Anglicans, denied politicians, including presidential candidates Raila Odinga and Musalia Mudavadi, a chance to speak at a dedication service. in western Kenya for the first female elected bishop of the church in the country.

The Presbyterian Church of East Africa (ASEP) imposed the first such ban in July, underlining concerns over the growing use of the pulpit for divisive political purposes. Under public health guidelines to contain the coronavirus approved by an interfaith council, church attendance in Kenya is currently limited to no more than a third of the congregation. But the arrival of politicians and their entourage almost always attracts larger crowds, breaking Covid containment protocols.

With the August 2022 elections only 11 months away and large public gatherings remaining banned since April 2020, the appeal of alternative political mobilization platforms such as religious forums has grown. Smaller religious groups, which mainly depend on Sunday offerings to run their affairs, also appeared more eager for donations from politicians after Covid-19 restrictions forced them to close their doors or admit fewer members in their services. According to the results of the 2019 population census, 85% of the 47 million Kenyans enumerated identified themselves as Christians, 11% identified themselves as Muslims while the rest were Hindus, Sikhs, Baha’is or followers of traditional beliefs.

Of the 85 percent of the population who are Christians, 33 percent are non-evangelical Protestants, 21 percent are Catholic, 20 percent evangelical, the remainder belonging to smaller groups such as the indigenous African and Orthodox churches.

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Among the presidential candidates, Vice President William Ruto has been the most aggressive in courting churches, making Sunday church visits and handing out huge donations, especially in the battlefield counties of the Mount Kenya region. A born-again avowed Christian who in 2019 unveiled a prayer altar at his official residence in Nairobi, Dr Ruto also sought to assert his faith while caricaturing his toughest challenger in the 2022 presidential race, the former Prime Minister Odinga, as mganga (Kiswahili for sorcerer).

In 2010, he partnered with conservative faith groups in the campaign for no constitutional referendum, citing a proposed amendment bill seen as promoting abortion and homosexuality.

Unlike the Vice President, Mr. Odinga, although born an Anglican, does not wear his religion on his sleeve.

His father Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, independence hero and Kenya’s first vice president, rose to fame for resisting giving Western names to his sons at a baptism ceremony organized by the Church Missionary Society .

The former prime minister has in the past criticized the clergy for accepting the millions of shillings donated by Dr Ruto to church fundraisers, accusing them of promoting corruption.

But in recent weeks, Mr. Odinga has also been seen joining the fight for the flock, attending Sunday church services more regularly and firing those questioning his faith.

Following the decision by the ASEP, Catholic and Anglican clergy to ban pulpit campaigns, Mr. Odinga is among politicians who have said they will respect the decision.

Dr Ruto, who has spent a fortune trying to build a political base in churches, is unlikely to back down too quickly.


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