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Church Plays Key Role Before Kenyan Elections


Kenya's religious leaders played an important role before this week's national elections, urging followers to vote and refrain from violence. As Nick Wadhams reports from Nairobi, pastors and priests have also been influential in other ways by subtly advocating their candidates of choice, but never coming out with straightforward endorsements.

At a Christmas Day church service, pastor Justus Mutuku sings with his congregants after an hour-long sermon reminding people to be good Christians during the holiday season. One way they can do that, he says, is to vote for the candidate best prepared to bring new prosperity to Kenya.

Mutuku never tells his flock who that might be. But this is the Africa Inland Church, whose home base is in an area populated by a tribe called Kamba, who support Kalonzo Musyoka, a Kamba like them. After the sermon, Mutuku explains his outlook.

"We do not take that as our responsibility to tell people who to vote for, but to present to them the qualities and the requirements of a good leader," said Mutuku. "I believe from hearing such qualities people will be able to know obviously so and so then does not qualify for that matter."

"So I think it is our obligation to let people know what kind of people they should vote, why they should vote or such, but not to make accurate decisions for them," he added.

Strategies like Mukutu's were common in the thousands of churches across Kenya before the December 27 vote.

Their preferences reflect a historical fact: when missionaries became most active in Kenya in the early 20th century, the various churches agreed to split the country and work in separate areas. As a result, various Christian churches have come to be associated with different tribes.

Because Kenyan politics is partly influenced along tribal lines, it is often not too hard to figure out which candidate each pastor supports, even if they are reluctant to say so.

Down the street, in central Nairobi, sits a Catholic church, where the message is more ambiguous. There, worshipers appeared divided between President Mwai Kibaki and his chief rival, Raila Odinga. At this church, different worshipers got the different message they wanted.

Joe Wanjohi, a retired journalist, says he will vote for President Kibaki to win a second five-year term.

"They have been telling us once we are through with the merrymaking for Christmas we should be ready to vote and vote wisely, and they continue to remind us that even after the elections we will still be Kenyans," said Wanjohi.

"They are not quite indicating who is who, what they are saying is look at somebody's past performance, vote for the person you think is best, has a cleaner record and one who can guide this country to greater heights," he continued.

Wanjohi's wife Anne is also a Kibaki supporter, but says she is prepared to accept whoever wins.

"If it is Kibaki, if it is Raila, OK, Kalonzo, for now we are Kenyans, we accept whoever goes through," she said. "But we put our checks and balances to make sure our country does not go back to the dogs the way it was in the past. It was really going down, our country was finished. Kibaki has brought us where we are now and we are ready. Whoever takes over the government we will not allow that person to take us back."

Religious groups' involvement in Kenyan politics dates back many years.

In the 1980s, the National Council of Churches of Kenya became an outspoken opponent of President Daniel arap Moi, who drew support from another group, the Evangelical Fellowship of Kenya.

In 2002 elections won by Mr. Kibaki, church groups deployed hundreds of voting monitors, as they had done in 1997.

Catholic Archbishop John Njenga also served as a voice of moral conscience, demanding that Kibaki fulfill his promises to stamp out corruption once he was elected.

This year, the National Council of Churches has urged Mr. Kibaki and his rivals, Raila Odinga and Mr. Musyoka, to respect the results of the balloting.

The candidates in this overwhelmingly Christian nation have also courted Muslims, who make up about 10 percent of the population and are believed to favor Odinga.

The church's influential role has also meant that politicians have looked to it to score political points in this election year.

Reverend Mattews Mwalwa leads a church just down the street from President Kibaki's home, known as State House. He recalls the time in September when Mr. Kibaki's staff called to ask him whether the president could speak before his congregation.

"Unfortunately, this year we have seen the same government going to churches like they have never been before," said Mwalwa. "It made it so obvious, like, we need your votes. We live next to State House and it was his first time for the last five years to come and worship here, and when he stood up to speak - I am asking you to vote me back - it becomes very obvious."

Mwalwa says for the past year he has been setting aside sermons to teach about the principles of good governance, in the hope of preparing his congregants for the vote. He says now, heading into the polls, Kenyan voters are more politically savvy than ever.