Kenyan Christians Oppose Bid to Formalize Shari'a Law

By Stephen Mbogo | July 7, 2008 | 8:16pm EDT

Nairobi, Kenya ( - Kenyan Christian leaders are urging their congregations to oppose a forthcoming vote on a new constitution for the East African nation because the proposed document gives recognition to Islamic (shari'a) law.

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

The new constitution would establish the courts as part of the national justice system.

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

About 11 percent of Kenya's 30 million people are Muslims, 45 percent are Protestants, 33 percent Roman Catholics and 12 percent adhere to indigenous or other beliefs.

The Christian leaders expressed concern that recognition of the courts would eventually lead to the application of Islamic law in criminal matters, a controversial matter because shari'a provides for severe punishments like stoning to death or the amputation of limbs for certain crimes.

"We had better stay with the current constitution than to adopt a document that will plunge the country into chaos," said Bishop Mark Kariuki of the evangelical Deliverance Church.

Kenyan churchmen have been watching the situation in the Nigerian state of Kano, one of 12 states in the country to have embraced shari'a law.

Last month, Kano introduced a segregated public transport system between the sexes, the latest step in its implementation of the Islamic code.

In Kenya, the debate is threatening to derail a long, drawn-out process of reviewing and updating the constitution to political reforms here.

The proposed constitution is now being drafted by the attorney general whose final edited document is meant to be put to a national referendum in November.

But church leaders are now calling for the proposed shari'a court changes to be put off for years to allow for more debate between followers of the two faiths.

"We pray that the new constitution should not condemn the country into a shari'a state," said Bishop Kihara Mwangi, a church leader and lawmaker.

On the other hand, Muslims are threatening to reject the entire proposed constitution if the section recognizing Kadhi courts is omitted, said Najib Balala, a cabinet minister and Muslim.

Last year, Kenyan Muslims threatened to form their own state under Islamic law if Kadhi courts were not formally recognized in the constitution.

Some accused Christians of working with "foreign evangelists" from the U.S. to suppress freedoms enjoyed by the Muslim community.

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