The Catholic Church is emerging as one of the influential players in determining voting patterns in Kisii County in the August 9 General Election.
It is one of the dominant religious groups in the region and enjoys a huge following, a factor that has attracted the attention of politicians keen to endear themselves to voters.
The 2019 census showed that 35.6 per cent of the Kisii County population identified themselves as Catholic.
More than 400,000 of the 1.2 million Kisii County residents are Catholics. Protestants are a majority, with over 500,000 members.
Kisii governorship aspirant Simba Arati and his team met Bishop Joseph Mairura on what was described as his strategy to resolve their differences.
After disagreeing with Mr Arati last year over what was termed as disrespect and disrupting a church service, Bishop Mairura warned politicians to watch their behaviour in church.
But after the Thursday morning meeting, a disagreement has erupted among Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) leaders in the region, with two rival groups fighting over the visit.
Mr Arati and aspirants aligned to him met Bishop Mairura for five hours, triggering speculation about what was discussed.
Mr Arati’s delegation included his running mate Robert Monda, Senate candidate Richard Onyonka and the team’s ‘adopted’ woman rep aspirant Donya Aburi, who is not an ODM nominee.
"Yes, it is true we met with the bishop and this is just routine. We have been meeting religious leaders because we are a people who respect them and above all fear God,” Mr Arati said.
“What is regrettable however is the politics being peddled around by our critics. Dragging religious leaders into petty politics is wrong."
The meeting between Mr Arati and Bishop Mairura has sparked debate, given that the outgoing Dagoretti North MP had disagreed with the church leaders last year, prompting them to return his Sh100,000 donation.
It was seen as a way of brokering a truce between the two, a move that has drawn criticism from his political competitors.
Bishop Mairura, without mentioning names, said last year that he was offended by one politician, whom he accused of attempting to interfere with a church programme officiated by a representative of the Pope in Kenya.
''Let me warn our politicians that you cannot succeed by fighting God and the church, those who do that stand cursed,'' he said at the time.
After the Thursday meeting, an apparently fake social media account suspected to have been created by bloggers associated with some Kisii County leaders emerged, with allegations that the politicians’ visit was meant to compromise the bishop.
The Arati team moved swiftly to denounce the allegations, and accused some leaders of allegedly sponsoring the bloggers to create hostility between him and the Catholic Church.
Onyonka cry foul
Mr Arati, Mr Onyonka and Bonchari constituency ODM aspirant Jonah Onkendi accused some leaders in the county of using the church issues to undermine the party’s chances of winning the elections.
“I want to urge the said leaders to retire honourably and leave the party to reorganise its support in Kisii,” said Mr Arati.
Mr Onyonka said that for far too long, they had tolerated abuses and propaganda from some bloggers aligned to their political opponents.
“A story on social media [alleges] that Mr Arati, Ms Donya, Mr Monda and I went to see Bishop Mairura and that after seeing him, we bribed him with three million shillings. The people who are doing these stories work in the county government….” said Mr Onyonka.
He added: “We want to tell them; you want Bishop Mairura to hate us…Bishop Mairura can’t hate us. First of all…, Bishop Mairura is my uncle. So he can’t hate me because of petty propaganda.”
On Friday morning, Mr Onyonka and Mr Arati convened a press conference in which they condemned allegations that their visit had anything to do with money or that it was an attempt to compromise the bishop as alleged by the bloggers.
“We are concerned about the emergence of dirty politics that is now spilling over to tarnish the good image of the church. We have had a very cordial relationship with all the churches in Kisii County, particularly the Catholic Church,” said Mr Arati.
He said that some members of his family belong to the Catholic Church, others are Lutherans, while others are SDA.
“We have always interacted with the bishop, vicar-general, fathers, priests and all the other religious leaders including imams specifically to pray for peaceful campaigns,” he said.
“Even when some of our detractors blew out of proportion a small incident in Nyamagwa, we have been meeting with church leaders to discuss issues of common interest for the good of our people.
“The distance we have covered is a result of the prayers by the fathers, bishop, pastors, imams and other religious institutions.”
Mr Arati threatened to take legal action against bloggers tarnishing his name and that of the bishop. He said they had reported the fake accounts used by bloggers to the Kisii Central Police Station.
He singled out some leaders in the county as the sponsors of the alleged malicious propaganda that he said is aimed at tainting the image of his team and besmirching the character of church leaders.
Mr Onyonka said that as a Catholic follower, he had every right to interact with the bishop, whom he described as a person of impeccable faith and standing.