Kenya attack targets Christians, putting new pressure on religious leaders

NAIROBI, KENYA — Christians gunned down on the spot. Muslims left alive, saved by their ability to prove their faith.

It's increasingly the pattern of the militant Islamist group Al Shabab, which on Thursday attacked a majority Christian university in the eastern Kenyan town of Garissa, killing at least 147 people just ahead of the Easter holiday. And it's straining communities that have long lived in relative harmony.

“The overall goal here is not only to make the government look bad, but ultimately to drive a wedge between the Christian and Muslim communities in Kenya,” says Abdullahi Boru, Nairobi-based East Africa researcher with Amnesty International.

Religious leaders throughout Kenya who deal with growing Christian-Muslim tensions say they aren’t sure how much longer communities that have lived side by side for years can withstand the pressure.

“We feel targeted, we feel scared…. It is becoming more and more difficult to tell Christians to be patient. Some of them are saying time has come to react and defend ourselves,” says Father Willybard Lagho, the vicar general at the Catholic Archdiocese of Mombasa and the head of the county’s interfaith council.

For some pastors, that means getting permission to carry guns. “To arm pastors – it means we are moving into the militarization of our society,” he says.

The separation tactic first emerged during the 2013 attack on Nairobi’s Westgate Mall when attackers from Al Shabab, which is based in neighboring Somalia, demanded that shoppers declare the shahada, an Islamic creed. It was employed again, twice, in the northeast county of Mandera in late 2014, with 28 Christian bus passengers left dead on the side of the road at the end of one attack.

Today’s raid made it clear that the pattern is now entrenched.

"When our men arrived, they released the Muslims," said Al Shabab spokesman Sheikh Ali Mohamud Rage, according to local media reports. They held the remaining students hostage for 13 hours before the four fighters holding them were killed.

Survivors told The Associated Press that Christian students were “gunned down without mercy.”

Student Collins Wetangula said that the attackers went door to door asking if the students hiding inside were Christian or Muslim.

"If you were a Christian, you were shot on the spot," he said. "With each blast of the gun, I thought I was going to die.”

Pulling away

Along Kenya's eastern flank, many are worried about the effects the attacks will have on their communities.

Mr. Lagho says that churches in the coastal city of Mombasa, where Muslim and Christian leaders have been killed, have beefed up their security, arranging for police protection during services.

“Christians are scared, yes, but we are trying to encourage them not to give up, not to revenge,” he says. “Some individuals call Muslims terrorists. The line is becoming a bit blurred now.”

A recent break in attacks and killings has helped tamp down the anger that could have motivated revenge attacks, he says, but still, he adds, the city has turned a corner toward distrust. And extremists have intimidated Muslim leaders into not publicly condemning such attacks – exactly the message the Christian community wants to hear.

Khalef Khalifa, chairman of the Mombasa-based Muslims for Human Rights, is emphatic that Al Shabab won’t succeed.

“People here understand this is the work of Al Shabab. They know it’s not the work of Muslims in Kenya,” he says. “The killing does not affect the Christians alone. It even affects us. I was at home here with my wife and she’s so pissed off. [She’s asking] ‘Why are they killing innocent people?’ ”

In Wajir, the next county north of Garissa that also borders Somalia, suspicion already runs deep. The indigenous population is almost entirely Kenyan Somali and Muslim. Most of the Christians – few in number – are civil servants or businessmen from other parts of Kenya who come for at most a few years for work.

Earlier this year, Sunday worshipers at the local Roman Catholic church spoke of deep distrust of their neighbors. Their church was attacked the year before, and the statue of Jesus on the crucifix in the courtyard is now behind glass, gaping holes in its torso from the attack.

Wajir Deputy County Commissioner Peter Mgeleiyo Lotulia says a Somali couldn’t be trusted to guard the church because “suspicion is creeping in. You don’t know the difference between a friend and an enemy.”

Desperate times

Muslims, too, are on edge, and the suspicion of them could exacerbate the tensions. They are stuck between a government that sees them as Al Shabab sympathizers and the actual militants who have, in some cases, killed them as easily as Christians, says Mr. Boru of Amnesty International.

Mass arrests, like the March 2014 operation in the Nairobi neighborhood of Eastleigh that culminated in the arrest of thousands, mostly Somali men, isolate them.

Kenyans are “still saying ‘We are all Kenyans.’ I don’t know how long that will hold,” Boru says.

Al Shabab's use of religious division is a sign of its desperation, he argues. With the militants losing territory to African Union forces and its leadership getting picked off by drones, the shock value of the tactic helps the group maintain relevance.

“This is the lowest in terms of their capacity that they have had in ages,” he says.