Powerful churches target Kenya's Constitution over abortion

Johannesburg, South Africa - A letter by three US congressmen aims to stop Kenya from ratifying a newly passed Constitution because they feel it encourages Kenyan women to have abortions.

In their May 6 letter to the US State Department’s acting Inspector General, a copy of which has been obtained by the Monitor, Rep. Chris Smith (R) of New Jersey, Rep. Darrell Issa (R) of California, and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R) of Florida requested an audit of US government funds on the basis of a US law that states that “none of the funds made available under this Act may be used to lobby for or against abortion.”

The lawmakers' efforts come amid an initiative by powerful Kenyan churches to battle what religious leaders see as an opening to abortion.

Kenya’s draft Constitution actually forbids abortion, “unless in the opinion of a trained health professional, there is need for emergency treatment, or the life or health of the mother is in danger....” US Amb. Michael Rannenberger allegedly urged Kenyans to vote for this new Constitution on numerous occasions, which these congressmen argue is in breach of US law.

Two years after mob violence killed nearly 1,300 Kenyans and forced 300,000 others from their homes – in the wake of an election that appeared to be deeply flawed and manipulated by Kenyan politicians who had extraordinary powers over the judiciary and the supposedly independent electoral commission – many Kenyans say that passing a new constitution is necessary for the country’s very survival.

A recent survey found that an overwhelming majority of Kenyans, more than 60 percent, approve of the new Constitution, which many Kenyans have read because of freely available printed copies paid for by funds given by the US Agency for International Development.

Powerful churches step in

Yet Kenya’s powerful churches are putting on the brakes. And the draft Constitution’s provision for abortion is just one of many of their concerns.

“The Constitution is an important document for Kenya, but there is no reason why Kenyans should adopt a bad constitution,” says Henry Njagi, spokesman for the National Council of Churches of Kenya in Nairobi. “For Christians don’t see why they should be asked to endure a constitution that is so directly against Christianity.”

Mr. Njagi says that church leaders had engaged Kenya’s politicians about revising the Constitution since the 1980s, but “at every stage, they did not address our issues. So now, we have no choice but to say ‘no.’ ”

By threatening to scuttle the constitution process, Kenya’s churches – particularly its Roman Catholic and Pentecostal denominations – are moving into dangerous territory, Kenyan political observers say.

“These people are playing with fire,” says Mwalimu Mati, director of the Mars Group Kenya, an anticorruption watchdog that has pushed for the new constitution. “They’re forgetting the benefits of the whole bill of rights, just because of one clause in the bill of rights. We Kenyans have short memories, we don’t remember that people were killed because of the terrible effects of the stalemate of the last election, and if there is another stalemate in a future election under this current Constitution, there will be bloodshed again.”

Mr. Mati rejects the idea that church leaders were ignored during the drafting of the Constitution. “Certain interest groups are trying to renegotiate ideas that they have already agreed to, but where maybe they didn’t get things the way they wanted them,” he says.

US government says goal is to prevent future violence

The US government has not specifically endorsed any particular section of the Kenyan draft Constitution, but it has vigorously argued that Kenyans must adopt a constitution that would prevent a return of the political violence that followed the Dec. 27, 2007, elections.

“The Government of the United States welcomes Parliament’s overwhelming approval of Kenya’s harmonized draft Constitution,” Michael Ranneberger, the US ambassador to Kenya, said last month, after Kenya’s parliament passed the draft. “The leaders of the coalition government have sent a clear and positive message to the Kenyan people that the implementation of a new constitution is critical to achieving political reform.”

The US government has spent nearly $1 million in helping Kenyans register to vote in the upcoming referendum on the Constitution, now scheduled for Aug. 5, 2010. It has also spent $500,000 printing copies of the draft Constitution to be handed out on street corners, for Kenyans to familiarize themselves with the document.

Abortion issue rallies local Christians

Yet local Christians say the provision for abortion, even in emergency circumstances, is antithetical to their beliefs. And they have received a kind of hallelujah chorus from likeminded conservative Christian groups in the US, including Rev. Pat Robertson’s group, the American Center for Law and Justice.

"It opens the door to abortion on demand, which is why Christian organizations who are pro-life are so opposed to that provision," Jordan Sekulow, international director for ACLJ, told the Associated Press in an interview earlier this year.

In Nairobi, and throughout the country, religious activists have started a leaflet campaign to winnow away support for the draft constitution. One letter, signed by senior Pentacostalist church leaders, says, “we shall not endorse a constitution that has grossly overlooked justice and concerns persistently raised but ignored by the review organs for the warning in the Bible is very clearly recorded in Exodus 21:2 – 'Do not follow the crowd in wrong doing. When you give testimony in a lawsuit, do not pervert justice by siding with the crowd.' ”