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Muslim-Christian Relations Strained by Violence in Kenya’s Coastal Region

April 4, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
The port city of Mombasa, Kenya, is at the center of a religious divide. It's a predominately Muslim part of an otherwise Christian nation, and residents say it's a region that has been neglected by the government. Special correspondent Kira Kay reports on the simmering tensions that have recently erupted into violence.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And now to Kenya, a key U.S. ally.

During last month’s elections, only one part of the country saw violence, the coastal region, where 12 people were killed by separatist insurgents. And the coast also suffers from a religious divide. It is a predominately Muslim part of an otherwise Christian nation.

Special correspondent Kira Kay recently traveled to the port city of Mombasa to explore the new tensions.

KIRA KAY: Saturday mornings, the Salvation Army Church in Mombasa, Kenya, is alive with choir practice.

Musical director Charles Muthama leads the rehearsal.

CHARLES MUTHAMA: We are very proud of this church. We are proud of the band. It is the only band in the coast, in the coast region.

KIRA KAY: The Salvation Army is a Christian congregation, nestled in the heart of a predominantly Muslim city. But Salvation Army church member Mary Ivusa says their faith had never been an issue.

MARY IVUSA, Salvation Army Church: hey are our neighbors here. Most of these houses you see here, they are Muslims. We have been here for many years, and we have never had problems with them.

KIRA KAY: But that changed in August last year. Hundreds of youths, angry over the suspicious death of their controversial Muslim leader, took to the streets and attacked the Salvation Army Church and several others in the city. Five people were dead. Dozens more were injured. Property was destroyed.

MARY IVUSA: I felt so bad. We had worked so hard. But in just a minute, everything we had done had gone to ashes. Band instruments were taken. Some of them were destroyed. Some of them even some of them were thrown on the roads.

KIRA KAY: The overtly religious nature of the violence was unprecedented in a part of the world once known for coexistence.

Besides its many mosques, cathedrals and temples dot Mombasa’s streets. The city has East Africa’s largest port and its historic Old Town is a magnet for tourists. But human rights groups say a perfect storm had been brewing here in recent years, starting with the longstanding unhappiness of coastal residents over neglect by the central government.

HUSSEIN KHALID, Muslims for Human Rights: There has been, you know, very clear discrimination and marginalization of the Muslim-dominated regions. That’s a fact.

KIRA KAY: Hussein Khalid runs the group Muslims for Human Rights, or MUHURI.

HUSSEIN KHALID: If you look at education, for example, our region remains to be the one with the least number of schools per population if you compare the ratio. We have very poor infrastructure. And there’s no other region that has more resources than coast, but, unfortunately, it receives the least from the central government.

KIRA KAY: While Mombasa’s grievances are shared by residents of all faiths, Khalid says pressures on Muslims in particular have been stoked by Kenya’s role in the global war on terror.

Kenya has been the target of major attacks, including the U.S. Embassy bombing in 1998. And it has become a significant player in regional stabilization, fighting against the al-Qaida-linked militants Al-Shabab in neighboring Somalia. There is evidence that Al-Shabab has recruited youth from Mombasa to fight against the Kenyan troops and it has bombed targets on Kenyan soil.

But, in response, local Kenyan police have sometimes employed strong-arm tactics that have come under criticism from international human rights groups.

HUSSEIN KHALID: Every other week, you hear of a raid, police raiding a home, probably harassing people. And then, a few hours later, they would come back and tell you, well, we didn’t find anything.

And when a community feels when they are aggrieved, when they are harassed, then there’s no way that someone will come to their aid, there’s no way the law will be used to address their issues, then you feel completely helpless.

KIRA KAY: A main target of Kenyan investigators was controversial local sheik Aboud Rogo Mohammed. Known for his anti-government sermons and on U.S. sanctions lists for his support of Al-Shabab, Sheik Rogo worried many of Mombasa’s other Muslim leaders, including Sheik Muhdhar Khitamy.

SHEIK MUHDHAR KHITAMY, Kenya: We knew that there was going to be — we are headed for — for bad things, because the youths were given — the youths have got virgin minds. And, you know, they were given these ideologies by this preacher. And when this particular preacher was assassinated, right, then the sentiments came out.

KIRA KAY: On Aug. 27th, Sheik Rogo was shot more than a dozen times in broad daylight while driving down a Main Street. The Salvation Army Church was next to Rogo’s mosque and became an easy target for followers who suspected Rogo was assassinated by Kenyan authorities.

HUSSEIN KHALID: The youths were against the states. The states, to them, is represented by the Christian faith.

KIRA KAY: Father Wilybard Lagho, the vicar general of Mombasa’s Catholic Church, says he feared reprisal attacks from his own community.

FATHER WILYBARD LAGHO, Catholic Church: One needed only to attack a Muslim mosque, and it will appear like now it’s a religious conflict.

KIRA KAY: Father Lagho convened an emergency session of a group he chairs called the Coast Interfaith Council of Clerics. Sheik Khitamy is a member of the council.

SHEIK MUHDHAR KHITAMY: We had to come out and condemn in the media, in the mosques. We went round the mosques, right, to preach peace.

It is not part of the Islamic tradition.

And we sat together. We had a series of meetings with the church leaders. We went to the public. And, you know, things went down.

KIRA KAY: Despite these successful efforts to calm the streets, Father Lagho believes radicalism has taken its toll on society here.

WILYBARD LAGHO: This relationship has been strained a lot, because on the part of Christians, they might not be able to distinguish whether this particular Muslim is a radical Muslim or he’s a tolerant Muslim. And on the part of the Muslims as well, they may not be able to distinguish between an intolerant Christian preacher and the majority who are very peaceful Christians.

KIRA KAY: And so Lagho’s council remains vigilant.

MAN: There is a breakdown of communication between the youth and the elder structure.

KIRA KAY: Meeting regularly to share intelligence from within each religious community and craft responses when tensions emerge.

WILYBARD LAGHO: The whole concept of interfaith, inter-religious dialogue is new. It’s new in the world. It’s new in Kenya. It’s new in Mombasa. Some people view it like, are you trying to mix up religions? And that mind-set will change with time.

KIRA KAY: Sheik Rogo’s assassination remains unsolved. Mombasa government officials declined our requests for interviews, but deny allegations of police brutality and say they have appointed a special counsel to investigate Rogo’s murder.

But human rights lawyer Hussein Khalid is skeptical.

HUSSEIN KHALID: You cannot send the police to come and investigate a killing in which they are the prime suspects. We say this publicly. The police cannot investigate the police. The death of Sheik Rogo will remain a mystery for many years to come. That’s for sure.

KIRA KAY: Khalid does put some hope in Kenya’s new constitution. The country’s recent election puts into office local senators and governors, who should have a greater say over coastal politics and resources.

In the meantime, MUHURI is focusing on at-risk youth.

Ruweidah Obama is an outreach worker with MUHURI.

WOMAN: One of the biggest churches around here was burnt by young people.

KIRA KAY: She says high unemployment and lack of education make the poor neighborhoods of Mombasa fertile recruiting grounds for Al-Shabab and other radical groups.

WOMAN: When you don’t have anything to do, what will you do? You would rather join whoever is trying to push for issues of radicalization, so you would rather join the group in order for you to get some little cash to help your family.

KIRA KAY: To counter the lure of radical recruiters, MUHURI has teamed up with a local theater group to scare the youth straight that joining radical groups can lead to injury and shame.

MAN: I ask for forgiveness from you and dad, and promise as of today I will no longer burn churches, if you could just help me find a job.

MARY IVUSA: So this one was replaced. This is the new flag.

KIRA KAY: Back at the Salvation Army Church, congregants like Mary Ivusa considered their future.

MARY IVUSA: The soldiers we have here, we call them the soldiers, they like this place very much. And we always think maybe God has a purpose for us to stay here.

KIRA KAY: And so they picked up the pieces, repairing the damage and once again filling their hall with music, believing Mombasa’s history of coexistence will prevail over current pressures.

JEFFREY BROWN: Kira Kay’s story is part of our partnership with the Bureau for International Reporting and their series “Fault Lines of Faith.”