Clampdown: State goes after rogue religious leaders

Members of the Commission of Inquiry into the Shakaola Tragedy

Attorney-General Justin Muturi (seated, second left) and Justice Eric Ogola (seated, centre) with members of the Commission of Inquiry into the Shakaola Tragedy at Milimani Law Court on May 9, 2023.

Photo credit: Wilfred Nyangaresi | Nation Media group

Cult leaders, advocates of religious extremism, fake prophets and other unscrupulous religious leaders were yesterday put on notice after two teams were sworn in to investigate their conduct and look into religion’s regulatory framework in the country.

The teams—a Commission of Inquiry to unravel the circumstances that led to the Shakahola massacre and another to identify gaps and propose legal and governance changes to prevent religious extremism—were sworn in yesterday and are expected to start work immediately.

The Taskforce on the Review of the Legal and Regulatory Framework Governing Religious Organisations is expected to come up with proposals on standards and minimum certification requirements for all religious organisations and their leaders to they registered and allowed to operate.

Headed by former Gachoka MP and former National Council of Churches of Kenya (NCCK) General Secretary Mutava Musyimi, the 14-member task force has also been mandated to identify gaps in the legal, institutional and governance system that have allowed cults and extremist groups to operate, and make proposals on how the public can report such cases.

Meanwhile, the Commission of Inquiry into the Shakahola Tragedy, headed by Court of Appeal Judge Jessie Lesiit, will investigate the deaths, torture, inhuman and degrading treatment of members and individuals associated with the Good News International Church in Malindi, Kilifi County, led by Pastor Paul Mackenzie.

Yesterday, Justice Lesiit said the task ahead was daunting and promised that they would do their best.

Rev Musyimi described the Shakahola deaths as a tragedy, adding that there could be more cults that are yet to be discovered.

“The fact that we are here today must underline the gravity of this issue. I know that the people of Kenya are looking to us to deliver and we cannot let them down,” he said.

High Court Principal Judge Eric Ogola, who presided over the swearing-in on behalf of Chief Justice Martha Koome, said the tragedy had left an indelible mark on the country’s conscience and “exposed the vulnerability of Kenyans to religious extremism and other forms of abuse and exploitation by people who use religion as a cover for their criminal activities”.

Exposed weaknesses

The tragedy, he added, had also “exposed gaps and weaknesses in our legal, institutional and governance system that allowed atrocities to take place”.

“As the Commission of Inquiry and the presidential task force do their work, I urge all of us to reflect on our values, beliefs and practices as a people. Let us recommit ourselves to the values and principles of our constitution, which reminds us of the need to uphold human rights and dignity,” said Justice Ogola.

He reminded the teams that the constitution guarantees freedom of worship and conscience for all Kenyans and so religious diversity should be respected. 

“As a nation, we cannot afford to remain silent or indifferent to this threat to our peace, security, unity and values. We must act swiftly and decisively to bring justice to the victims and their families, prevent the recurrence of such incidents and protect the rights and welfare of our citizens from any form of religious coercion,” said Justice Ogola.

The swearing-in comes as the state cracks down on what it calls rogue churches and leaders, including pastors Paul Mackenzie and Ezekiel Odera, both accused of running cults masquerading as churches and sacrificing biblical principles for selfish gains.

Mr Mackenzie of the Good News International Church, who is the main face of the Shakahola tragedy, has been accused of preaching extreme religious views, including fasting to death to meet Jesus.

When he appeared before the Malindi Magistrate’s Court, he was charged with the offence of radicalisation under the Prevention of Terrorism Act but was acquitted, only to be re-arrested and taken to Shanzu to face possible terrorism charges.

Mr Odera of the New Life Prayer Centre and Church, who was linked to Mr Mackenzie, was released on a Sh1.5 million cash bail, with the court stating that there wasn’t enough evidence to keep him in custody.

Police officers also claimed that several of Mr Odera’s followers had died and their deaths were recorded at Kilifi Police Station between 2022 and 2023. Further, they suspect that some of the victims whose bodies have been found in Shakahola forest had attended Mr Odera’s church. Some of the bodies, they said, were kept in a private mortuary and buried in Shakahola.

Police officers also recently arrested 31 people in Nakuru County who had been fasting for about a week and appeared weak and hungry. The 14 adults and 17 minors were believed to be followers of a 62-year-old suspected cult leader called Army Rurwama.

The tip-off that led to the arrest came from a woman whose daughter, a community health nurse, had elected to go to the woman’s house to pray and fast instead of going to work. She had also been locked in the house for days without food. 

Not registered

Although Ms Rurwama claimed that the church had been operating since 2006, it is not registered as a church.

Two days ago, police in Kwale County rescued 200 people, including 50 children, from Kwale forest in a suspected case of religious kidnapping. The 200, believed to be members of Rainbow Faith Ministries – Vumbu, a splinter group of the main SDA church in Vumbu, were caught fasting with orders to pray strictly three times a day and three times a night.

Their leader, Joyce Mkumbi, a 23-year-old self-proclaimed prophetess with no theological training, was arrested and charged with exposing children to extreme religious doctrines.

Eliud Wekesa, alias Yesu wa Tongaren, the leader of the New Jerusalem sect, was also summoned yesterday for questioning about his church. He has led members of his church to believe that he is Jesus. Mr Wekesa has 12 disciples named after the descendants of the biblical Jacob.

While some religious leaders supported growing calls for regulation of churches, others hit back saying the rogue ones must be held individually accountable.

Condemning the Shakahola deaths on April 24, the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops (KCCB) called for regulation of churches, saying it would ensure that “rogue pastors are exposed in time and denied the opportunity to continue their dangerous acts”. The regulation, they said, would also help Kenyans to “identify the weak legal and religious links that cult leaders exploit to brainwash their unsuspecting followers”.

“We are witnessing a disturbing reality ... where so-called prophets and cult leaders have mastered the art of exploiting gullible Kenyans in the name of religion. In the process, their innocent followers have lost money, property and now lives,” said KCCB Chairman Archbishop Martin Kivuva.

While distancing itself from Mr Mackenzie’s religious practices, the Church and Clergy Association of Kenya (CCAK) argued that the call for regulation of churches was misplaced, stating that churches are already regulated under the Societies Act and the Attorney General's Office.

“As an umbrella body for Pentecostal churches, we want Kenya and the world to know that this was not a church, but a cult pursuing and teaching its own selfish interests, not those of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Paul Mackenzie and his cohorts must bear their own cross,” said Bishop Hudson Ndeda, the national chairman of the association.

Members of Rev Musyimi’s task force include Deliverance Church International’s Mark Kariuki, Bishop Eli Rop of Sayare TV and Radio, Archbishop Maurice Muhatia of the Catholic Archdiocese of Nakuru and renowned family lawyer Judy Thongori. Also in the team are Reverend Alphonse Kanga of PCEA, Dr Faridun Abdalla, lawyers Musili Wambua and Charles Kanjama, Mr Joseph Wabwire, Mary Awour Kitegi, Leah Kasera, Nancy Murega and County Commissioner Wilson Wanyanga. Mr Martin Ndiwa Talian and Mrs Maria Goretti Nyariki are joint secretaries.

The Justice Lesiit Commission of Inquiry includes Justice (Rtd) Mary Kasango, Dr Frank Njenga, lawyer Eric Gumbo, Bishop Catherine Mutua, Dr Jonathan Lodompui, Mr Wanyama Musiambu and Mr Albert Musasia. The commission's joint secretaries will be Mr Kipchumba Oliver Karori and Ms Rachel Maina. Mr Kioko Kilukumi will be the lead counsel, assisted by Ms Vivian Nyambeki and Mr Bahati Mwamuye.