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Ideological Battle Brewing in Mombasa Mosques

FILE - Men, part of the 70 arrested during a police raid on a mosque, sit in a court in Shanzu, Feb. 12, 2014.

FILE - Men, part of the 70 arrested during a police raid on a mosque, sit in a court in Shanzu, Feb. 12, 2014.

The Muslim community in the Kenyan coastal city of Mombasa has been shaken up as a youth movement has taken control of an influential mosque in the city. A police crackdown on alleged radicals has also created tension in the community. A battle for religious ideological supremacy is brewing as Kenya continues a crackdown on suspected al-Shabab terrorists in the country.

In early February, Kenyan security forces stormed the Masjid Musa Mosque in Mombasa. They killed three people and arrested more than 120 young people.

Police say that in the raid they recovered an AK-47 rifle, knives, video disks and flags - which bore the symbols of al-Shabab. Authorities have accused clerics at the Musa Mosque of recruiting for the Somali militant group al-Shabab in the rundown neighborhood of Majengo.

Clerics and young Muslims from the mosque deny the accusations and 100 of the 129 people arrested have been released from custody by the courts due to a lack of evidence. However, the remaining 29 suspects will face trial.

Khalid - who will only give his first name -- said he escaped being captured by police that day in what he says was an unjustified raid.

He said he goes to the Musa Mosque - even though he doesn't live nearby - because he likes the sermons. He said it is the only mosque in the area without a political agenda and where young people and young preachers can express themselves freely without being censored by the religious hierarchy.

"Freedom of speech - that's the difference. Because most of the mosques nowadays are built, we say, they are political mosques; someone is building it for self-benefit or self-gain. Musa Mosque was built and left for the community. Because the committee [that] was there didn't want the jihad topic to go on, they were overthrown by the youth," Khalid noted.

The dispute at Musa Mosque is part of the growing divide in Muslim communities over how far jihad, or holy war, can go and what tactics are acceptable.

Hassan Ole Nadu, the deputy secretary of the General Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims, says the split at Musa Mosque reflects the competing ideologies in the Muslim world.

"We have seen for the last few years, a tendency of some of the preaching are aligned to or inclining to certain religious ideology… When you have difference of an opinion with an individual, this ideology goes further and actually calls that person a Kafir [non-believer] or hypocrite," Nadu said. "I think if we are not careful in the country there might be an element of the new ideology which is informed by the global geopolitics of the ongoing in Muslim world and other parts of the world."

Local human rights organizations have accused the Kenyan police of using heavy-handed tactics against the Muslim community, including forced disappearances and murder. Police have strongly denied the accusations and say they are defending the nation from attack.

Abubakar Sharif Ahmed, known as Makaburi, is accused of helping to finance al-Shabab and recruiting young men in Mombasa - accusations he denies.

In a telephone interview with VOA from an undisclosed location in Mombasa, Makaburi said the young men at Musa Mosque are victims of a terrorist witch hunt.

"The youths like to come to Musa Mosque because it's the only mosque in Kenya that speaks the truth, that supports the oppressed. And in fact it's the only mosque in Kenya where more imams have been killed by the government than any other mosque in Kenya," Makaburi explained. "So Musa Mosque is not a mosque that is promoting terrorism but it's being terrorized."

Khalid said the Musa mosque provides solace to pained young men like him - who have missing family members or love ones killed by unknown gun men. "My dad was taken from there [Musa Mosque]. All my friends are associated with the mosque. You will find that people in the mosque are the people who are close to you. Every Eid [Muslim celebration] they bring things to you, they bring you monthly basics, some are educated by the same mosque so it's like a joint family in that mosque," he said.

Late last month, the members of the mosque changed its name to Masjid Shuhada - or Martyrs Mosque. They say the change is to show solidarity with those who have been killed by authorities or are facing terrorism charges in Kenya.