No one should misuse religious freedom to harm others

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Kenya has been experiencing a difficult week with the recovery of bodies at a ranch believed to be owned by Good News International Church Pastor Paul of Makenzi.

Ninety people have died so far, and the number is likely to rise. However, what sticks in my mind is a video clip of an emaciated survivor calling out to God to stop police from rescuing her. Religious extremism is nothing new, especially those involving charismatic and manipulative leaders who somehow convince their followers to eliminate themselves from the outside world, die, and sometimes even kill.

Suicides have been committed with poisons, weapons, and other quick methods. What baffles many is how slowly and painfully these people must have died, primarily because of starvation. It must be excruciating to starve oneself to death. Furthermore, the innocent children caught up in the deadly saga make the situation worse.

Despite the latest incident being the most visible and extreme manipulation in the name of religion in Kenya, such actions are not unusual. As a result of religious exploitation and extremism in Kenya and the region, terrorism recruitment and attacks have long been a problem. In 2006, members of the House of Yahweh moved into bunkers in fear of a nuclear apocalypse.

Our Ugandan neighbours witnessed a massacre by arson in the year 2000 owing to the cult termed Movement for Restoration of Ten Commandments which killed 900 people cumulatively. Additionally, many Kenyans know of other charismatic religious leaders who have allegedly extorted their followers. In the full light of our television screens, leaders often humiliate and exploit their followers. Several stakeholders have debated the punishment for the cult leader. Makenzi has been proposed for criminal prosecution under our counterterrorism laws or genocide.

That seems like an unwise idea since terrorist acts are by definition, designed to intimidate, cause fear, and force a government or international organisation to act. They are also designed to destabilise a country’s institutions. But on the other hand, genocide is a defined crime of attempting to destroy a part or a whole of a protected group (tribe, race, religion or ethnic group.

Meanwhile, there are calls for more regulation of churches and other religious formations. Former Attorney General Githu Muigai, proposed some rules in 2015 that required theological qualification and created a self-regulation framework. However, many stakeholders strongly opposed this proposal, especially religious groups, for violating the freedom of religion. For example, some religious leaders have no formal education, yet they lead their organisations well.

Article 32 of Kenya’s constitution and international human rights law recognises freedom of thought, belief, religion and conscience. This includes the right to, individually or in a group, express any religion or belief through worship and teaching, among other manifestations of belief. However, The Constitution does not allow anyone to use faith or religion, a form of expression, to harm or advocate for hatred of others.

It is easy to dismiss, mock or ridicule those who fall under the spell of such people; however, we genuinely do not understand what process leads to such blind dedication and self-destruction. It is known that hard times contribute to the desperation that leads people to surrender their autonomy, minds and property to charismatic leaders who promise to be a direct link to heaven.

Religious leaders are integral members of civil society and critical contributors to public and political discourse. We need self-regulating mechanisms and early warning systems to protect the community from those abusing their religious leadership positions. Furthermore, we need better mental health awareness and care and more discussions with psychologists about what attracts people to such leaders.

First published in The Standard on 27th April 2023. Kindly reproduced here with permission from The Standard.

Demas Kiprono is a human rights lawyer and a Campaign Manager at Amnesty International Kenya. He writes in his personal capacity. Email: [email protected]