The Presbyterian Church of East Africa (PCEA) is embroiled in a series of lawsuits over its land ownership in Central Kenya.
For the past six years, the church has been defending its rights to land parcels in Nyeri and Laikipia counties measuring a total of 105.45 acres.
In separate suits filed in Nyeri and Karatina courts, local communities are challenging the authenticity of the title deeds held to three Presbyterian churches in Riamukurwe and Kirimukuyu locations in Nyeri and Nyambogichi in Laikipia.
In an ongoing suit in the Principal Magistrate Court in Nyeri, the PCEA Riamukurwe Parish is fighting over a 0.25-acre parcel with another church, Jesus Celebration Centre.
In the matter, the Presbyterian Foundation, the custodian of PCEA, is seeking to evict the other church from the land registered as Ruring’u/HQS/104, citing trespassing.
In the case, PCEA has also sued the Nyeri County government Nyeri, the Nyeri lands office, the National Land Commission (NLC) and Mr Samuel Wamathai, who allegedly sold the disputed property to Jesus Celebration Centre.
Court documents show that the Presbyterian Foundation purchased the plot from a Mr Joseph Rubaru on January 18, 2000 for Sh500,000.
The property transfer documents signed by Mr Rubaru were later approved by the municipal council in a sitting held by the Special Finance Staff and General Purposes Committee on July 17, 2003.
But eight years later, Mr Wamathai, a local, approached PCEA administrators with another ownership document, a certificate of lease for 99 years issued by the lands office.
He claimed ownership of the property, which is registered in his title documents as Ruring’u/Market/65.
The lands office investigated and discovered that there was double ownership of the disputed property, which was registered in different names in the two title documents.
“Maps from the District Lands office showed that Plots Ruring’u/HQS/104 and Ruring’u/Market/65 are the same property registered differently under the Government land offices,” the Presbyterian Foundation said in court documents.
Even after realising that there was a mistake, Mr Wamathai allegedly leased the property to Jesus Celebration Centre, which in 2011 started building a church on the land.
Upon intervention by the county government, Jesus Celebration Centre was stopped from making any further developments on the property.
Took over the property
But PCEA moved to court, accusing the authorities of delaying the verification of ownership.
Court papers show that it has been paying Sh5,500 in land rates annually to the government since it took over the property in 2003.
In its defence, the county government has accused PCEA of providing an unregistered sale agreement in court as evidence.
It also argues that PCEA does have an allotment letter to show that the land parcel belonged to the previous buyer, Mr Rubaru, as it alleges.
“Furthermore, paying land rates cannot be proof of land ownership as the plaintiff claims,” the county government says in its documents.
For its part, Jesus Celebration Centre wants NLC to revoke the title, arguing that it is the rightful owner because of the lease agreement it signed with Mr Wamathai.
Meanwhile, in Nyambogichi, Laikipia County, PCEA is battling Nyambogichi Primary School in court over an 87.9-acre property.
Documents produced in the Environment and Land Court in Nyeri show that the two have been embroiled in the land dispute since 2013.
The PCEA Nyambogichi Parish claims that it founded and has been supporting the school, a claim the school’s management committee has rejected.
PCEA, which took the matter to court, said it has been the registered owner of the land since January 2002.
This was after the Locational Development Committee for Ngobit location, put in place by President Daniel Arap Moi, allocated the land to the church in 1994.
At that time, PCEA administrators say, they started a nursery school on the property that grew to what is now Nyambogichi Primary School.
Back then, the nursery school was used as a church until the congregation could not fit in the room, forcing the Presbyterian Foundation to build a semi-permanent church.
Since 2013, the school has complained about the land, registered as Euaso Nyiro/Suguroi Block VI/94, claiming ownership.
The school principal, Mr Boniface Ole Sekuta, has told the court that the disputed land has belonged to the government since June 1987.
He says the title deed should be issued to the school alone and not jointly with the church.
In its documents, PCEA says that on May 31, 2013, the district officer of Munyaka Division wrote a letter to the church asking it to surrender the title deed.
This was followed up in June 2013 with a land restriction on the property placed by the registrar at the Laikipia district registry.
Two years later, the registry wrote to the school asking it to surrender its title deed.
In the letter issued on May 21, 2015, the registry said it placed the restriction on the property on the request of NLC.
“The Land Commission had received numerous complaints from parents of Nyambogichi Primary School and the county government of Laikipia over the contested ownership of the property,” the letter says.
According to the management committee, the school is government-sponsored and is not managed by the church as alleged.
In its defence, PCEA says the school was taken over by people of a different religious faith in 2013, thus bringing the problems.
It wants the court to bar the NLC from revoking its ownership documents.
In yet another case, in the Karatina Magistrate Court, residents of Kirimukuyu location have sued PCEA over a 17.3-acre property.
Three residents - Githinji Gitehi, Nderitu Guthua and Mbuthia Kamonjo, who are suing on behalf of the community - argue that the estate registered as Kirimukuyu/Kiria/792 was set aside by locals in 1959 for a school.
But residents say the church acquired it fraudulently without consulting them.
The church, for its part, claims the land through a title deed issued to the Presbyterian Foundation in 2014.
The residents and PCEA have produced two sets of green cards, indicating double ownership of the parcel in Thaithi village, Kirimukuyu ward.
Also sued alongside the church are Tumutumu West parish session clerk Lydia Ngahu, parish minister Rev JM Mbae, the Nyeri County government and the county land registrar.