To our credit as a country, freedom of religion is one area that has enjoyed relatively few hardships, with persons being allowed to practice their faith unhindered. There have been no major penalties and disabilities hampering the freedom of religion. As a result, we have had exponential growth, particularly in evangelical churches, owing to a relatively free operating environment.
The result of the spreading number of churches has been the mushrooming of unregulated churches, sprouting in virtually every corner of the country. With these many churches, we have had persons of questionable morals and ethics appear and claim the mantle of pastoral authority.
The protection of the exercise of free religion is undoubtedly an essential aim of the Constitution’s religion clauses. The fervor that religious belief excites is powerful and indeed, a significant number of people care profoundly about their religious beliefs and practices. The passion for religion and faith is such that a good number would feel that their religious obligations supersede duties to the state in the event of a conflict between the two. Hence the need for the state to tread cautiously in matters of faith by avoiding interference in so far as reasonable circumstances demand.
However, the recent discovery of bodies in a mass grave at Shakahola forest, the dead believed to be adherents of a church headed by a controversial Pastor Paul Mackenzie, raises the dire prospect of heightened regulation of churches. The lax regulatory structure governing churches has been blamed for unfortunate incidents such as the Malindi mass grave surrounding Pastor Mackenzie. The approach has been termed by Professor H. Kwasi Prempeh as ‘socially disastrous and no longer desirable’.
The realities of life today call for the regulation of churches and indeed all faith institutions in some form. It can no longer be business as usual considering the unfortunate happenings. We have experienced several bad apples who have taken advantage of the liberalized to not only enrich themselves but to take advantage of vulnerable citizens. The Constitution certainly expects state intervention in its protective capacity whenever the life and limb of persons are at risk. The state must take decisive action and engage church leadership in finding a solution. It can no longer be business as usual.
The state must also resist the temptation of overacting and overreaching when dealing with unfortunate cases such as what happened in Shakahola. The state, in dealing with these serious concerns, must always stay on the path of constitutionalism and the rule of law. Arbitrariness and knee-jerk reactions will not assist Kenya resolve the myriad of problems we face as a country.
Church leaders must join hands with the state in tackling the challenges that are presented by the rogue elements within their ranks. The onus on the church leaders is to ensure that the image and the moral force that faith should hold are not jeopardized by bad apples within their ranks. The leadership of the church and indeed all religious leaders in Kenya, those that serve in truth and are genuine in their calling, must see the Shakahola incident as a wake-up call for urgent reforms and regulation. The traditional resistance to accountability and regulation is no longer tenable. The time for regulation and reform has drawn nigh. Our condolences to the families of the bereaved persons. We hope that there shall never be a repeat of the Shakahola incident.