Religious Tensions Rising in Kenya Over Islamic Law Issue

By Stephen Mbogo | July 7, 2008 | 8:14 PM EDT

Nairobi, Kenya ( - Christian leaders in Kenya have voiced fresh concern after delegates at a commission drafting a new national constitution moved closer to a decision in favor of recognizing Islamic ( shari'a ) law in the country.

A committee of the commission that is tasked with handling religious matters in the review process voted overwhelmingly in support of the move.

If a similar vote of the entire review commission endorses the decision, shari'a law will become part of Kenya's legal landscape.

Under the existing constitution, shari'a courts (also known as Kadhi's courts, after the title of the presiding officer) are allowed to adjudicate in matters of family and succession relating to the Muslim minority, but not in criminal disputes.

Islamic law's criminal code is controversial because it provides for severe punishment like limb amputation or stoning to death for those found guilty of certain offenses.

Of Kenya's 30 million people, around 10 percent are Muslims.

Church leaders said it was wrong for purely religious bodies to be entrenched in the constitution of a secular nation in which people follow different religions.

One of the critics, Father Emmanuel Ngugi of the Holy Family Basilica Church in Nairobi, suggested Christians counter the move by demanding that Christian canonical courts also be entrenched.

He said it was important that "religion and the laws be separated."

Muslim leaders called their Christian counterparts "insensitive" to the rights of minorities.

Council of Imams and Islamic Preachers of Kenya chairman Sheikh Mohammed Idriss said shari'a court recognition should be seen as "a right" for Muslims.

He accused church leaders of wanting to "divide Kenya along the tribal lines."

The issue has evoked strong feelings in the Muslim community.

A lawmaker involved in the constitutional review, Mwangi Githiomi, said an Islamic fatwa (religious decree) has been issued calling for his death if he continued to
spearhead efforts to prevent the inclusion of Islamic courts in the constitution.

Last May, Muslim leaders threatened "balkanize the country" to secede and form their own state in areas where Muslims are prevalent, governed under Islamic law.

Supreme Council for Muslims in Kenya chairman Sheikh Subki Shee, warned of "religious strife in the country."

Some Muslim leaders accuse Kenyan Christians of conspiring with "foreign evangelists" - mostly from the United States - to suppress the freedoms enjoyed by Muslims.

In an increasingly bitter climate, the Federation of Churches has promised to fight against the shari'a move to the "bitter end."

In a statement, the body said while it respected the ongoing constitutional review process, "the churches in Kenya will not accept a verdict that entrench the Islamic courts."

The Rev. Jesse Kamau of the Presbyterian Church of East Africa said entrenching Islamic courts was akin to "indirectly declaring Islam the official state religion."

Such a move would lead to unnecessary suspicion and conflict, he warned.

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