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Kenya - Religion

The US government estimates the total population at 44 million (July 2013 estimate). Approximately 80 percent of the population is Christian and 10 percent is Muslim. Groups constituting less than 1 percent of the population include Hindus, Sikhs, and Bahais. Much of the remaining population adheres to various traditional religious beliefs. Of the Christian population, 57 percent is Protestant, 29 percent Roman Catholic, and 14 percent other Christian. Most of the Muslim population lives in the northeast and coast regions, where religion and ethnicity are often inextricably linked. There are approximately 405,000 Somali refugees in the Dadaab refugee camp, most of whom are Muslims.

Kenyans have been subject to decades of missionary activity and responses to it in the form of African independent churches and to centuries of Islamic influence centered on, but radiating from, the coast. For most Kenyans, religious belief and practice is an amalgam of elements, variously integrated, of Christianity or Islam on the one hand and practices and outlooks characteristic of indigenous religious systems on the other. Some groups on the periphery of Kenyan society, usually nomadic groups, have been little touched by missionary influence or have resisted it. Some, particularly the Somali, are Muslims, but theirs is an Islam closely connected with their Somali ethnicity rather than a religion that ties them to other Kenyan Muslims. Data on religious adherence provide useful if limited guidance to the religious outlooks and behavior of those who call themselves Christians or Muslims.

Kenyan official national identity is largely Christian. Kenyan national public events typically open and close with a Christian prayer and include Christian references throughout the ceremony, without a nod to fellow Kenyans who follow other faiths. Major political figures are publicly favored by specific church leaders. Christian leaders regularly speak out on political issues. Most church leaders do not hesitate to instruct their flocks on how to vote. It is common practice for ministers to yield their pulpit to favored politicians during worship services. Certain Christian leaders are able to attract larger and more enthusiastic crowds of supporters than can any of Kenya's political leaders.

Most of the African independent churches arose initially as responses of local congregations to perceived shortcomings of mission organization, or out of religious needs not met by mission teachings or practice. The first such split, as early as 1914, involved Luo members of a local Anglican mission. In the 1920s and 1930s locally led schismatic groups proliferated, and they continue to do so. Because independent churches established their structures and symbols in the course of conflicts between mission churches and local cultures, they tended to be restricted to persons of a single ethnic group or closely related neighboring groups, although there were exceptions. The need for opportunities to exercise leadership has generated splits within already independent churches, as have other tensions within each church and in the changing societies in which they were embedded.

Although faith in and the practice of the full complex of any indigenous religion have become less common, they still occur. Moreover, views held by Christians and Muslims of the way the world works and how to get it to work to one's advantage are often strongly affected by notions rooted in indigenous religion. Broadly, such religions, despite significant variations, are concerned with the effects of spirits and other sources of extraordinary power on the welfare of the living. Rituals have been oriented toward gaining the help of spirits in individual, family, or community efforts to acquire valued goods, or toward placating the spirits if they are deemed responsible for misfortune. But spirits, whatever their character or attributes, are not alone in exercising power to help or to harm. Some men and women — witches or sorcerers — are also thought to have such powers, either by natural proclivity or by acquiring certain skills in the manipulation of words and material items.

Belief in the activity of witches seems to persist even when other elements have faded. Witches are believed to exercise psychic power that enables them to harm others. They may be either men or women, but more often it is women who are accused of witchcraft, frequently against other women and their children, a consequence in part of the tensions between co-wives of the same man. In general, witches, whatever their sex, are thought to have inherited their powers, but the behavior and characteristics attributed to them vary from one ethnic group to another. Such persons have usually been referred to as witch doctors or medicine men. In Swahili the term is mganga (pl., waganga).

Belief and practice among African Muslims may range from the strict and exclusive Islam, including strict attention to Islamic law, of urban peoples in Mombasa, Malindi, and Nairobi to the bare profession of the Islamic faith by some in the rural areas with few, if any, consequences for their behavior.

Coastal Muslims make up approximately 60 percent of Kenya's Muslim population and 6 percent of Kenya's overall population. They account for approximately 50 percent of the population of Coast province. This community is ethnically mixed and divided amongst competing sects and tendencies. These various ethnicities, sects and tendencies usually unite over issues of common concern, although they contend against one another for leadership positions in mosques and Muslim associations. Coastal Muslims dominate leadership positions in Kenya's two main Muslim associations, the Supreme Council of Kenyan Muslims (SUPKEM) and the Council of Imams and Preachers of Kenya (CIPK).

The Kenyan Somali population, centered on North East province but with a substantial Nairobi-based component, accounts for about 20 percent of Kenya's Muslim population and 2 percent of Kenya's overall population. They are overwhelmingly Sunni and have both a traditionalist/Sufi camp and a Wahabist/radical camp. Of the 10 percent of top government positions held by Muslims, Somalis predominate. Somali belief and practice, particularly among the nomads, has differed to some extent from that required by Islam, either because ancient Somali ritual has persisted or because pastoral nomadism makes it difficult to submit to the rigors of Islamic practice. Moreover, Somali Islam is marked by the importance of religious orders and the cult of the saints.

The Borana (Oromo) and the closely related Orma and Gabra make up another division of Kenya's Muslim community. These Cushitic peoples live in remote and sparsely populated north central Kenya. Their communities include a significant minority of Christians and traditionalists. They make up about 10 percent of Kenya's Muslim population and about 1 percent of Kenya's overall population. They tend not to identify closely with fellow Muslims from elsewhere in Kenya, due largely to their isolation. They are heterodox in their Islamic beliefs and practices, mixing many elements of traditional belief.

The final 10 percent of Kenya's Muslim community consists of small Muslim minorities among the predominantly Christian Kamba, Kikuyu, Luo, Luhya, Kalenjin, and Rendille, among others. It also includes Nairobi's Nubian community (Sudanese origin) and Muslim members of the South Asian community outside Coast province. Also included here are Kenya's Ismaili Muslim community, which is small, but influential due to its charitable activities and strong presence in Kenyan commerce and media (the Nation group). The Ismailis are a moderate branch of Shi'a Islam led by a hereditary imam, the "Aga Khan."

The constitution and other laws and policies protect religious freedom. Muslims, primarily ethnic Somalis, complained, however, of arbitrary detention, harassment, and profiling by government security forces, particularly following terrorist attacks inside the country, including those linked to the Somali terrorist group al-Shabaab or its sympathizers, such as the 21 September 2013 attack on Westgate Mall in Nairobi.

Muslim leaders stated that the government made it difficult for Muslim youth to acquire identity cards, a prerequisite for voting and access to certain services. Christians stated that in heavily Muslim areas, Muslim government officials discriminated against Christians. Several religious groups complained that the government did not respect or accommodate their members’ religious requirements in executing government functions.

There were reports of societal abuses or discrimination based on religious affiliation, belief, or practice. In October Muslim youth in Mombasa rioted and lit a local church on fire after the killing of a Muslim cleric and three other Muslims. Following these incidents and the terrorist attack at Westgate Mall, however, interfaith leaders made public statements supporting religious tolerance and restraint. During the year some Muslims threatened with violence or death individuals, particularly ethnic Somalis, who converted from Islam.

Muslims stated that non-Muslim business and community leaders thwarted development efforts in predominantly Muslim areas. Christian leaders stated that Christians were subject to discrimination in historically Muslim areas on the country’s coast and in the northeastern region. Tensions remained high in some communities following several grenade attacks on churches and reprisal attacks against Muslims in 2012, though neither these attacks nor reprisals continued.

Although many Muslims ultimately endorsed the 2012 Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), Muslim leaders accused the government of using the law and the broader fight against terrorism as a pretext to arrest, harass, and sometimes deport Muslims. These critics stated the government failed to differentiate violent extremists from legitimate scholars, members of religious nongovernmental organizations, and ordinary citizens.

According to human rights groups, government security forces subjected citizens of Somali origin, who are predominantly Muslim, to arbitrary detention and punishment based on presumed links to extremists. For example, in April police conducted a security sweep of the predominantly Muslim and ethnic Somali city of Garissa and the Dadaab refugee camp after a deadly grenade attack in the area, arresting over 500 people. Because the large majority of Somalis are Muslim, it was difficult to classify these incidents specifically as instances of religious or ethnic intolerance.

Government schools sometimes prevented girls from attending classes if they wore headscarves or other religious dress. School authorities who ordered female students to remove their headscarves while in school stated that such garments were in violation of school uniform policies. There was no change to the September 2012 ruling by a Nairobi court in favor of Nairobi’s Kenya High School, which banned headscarves, though many other public high schools continued to permit students to wear them. Prohibitions on religious headwear at some schools affected members of the Akorino group, which combined Christian and African styles of worship and required women to cover their heads.

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Page last modified: 03-05-2015 19:48:37 ZULU