“We are Here to Stay”
Under cover of darkness on Sunday, June 15th, two vans quietly rolled into at the Kenyan coastal town of Mpeketoni. Aboard were militia armed with machine guns, preparing for another massacre. The terrorists sped to the police station, where they quickly disabled their communications and took their weapons. After overrunning the overwhelmed officers, they moved further into the town and began hunting down Christians.
Witnesses say they asked the locals if they were Muslims or Christians; they immediately shot any who were Christians. They also broke into houses and dragged the men into the streets to execute them. Women and children were released, but houses and cars were set on fire. The ensuing gun battle with Kenyan security forces lasted for almost five hours.
Most of the militia, if not all, escaped. At least 49 people have been reported killed, but there are likely many more.
As soon as the attack began, local pastors called Open Doors workers who remained in contact throughout the attack, watching and praying with them. The next morning, one of the pastors told an Open Doors worker, “My family and I hid in the hotel where we had gone for dinner. People were under tables, in cupboards, behind the shelves-anywhere we could find. Thankfully they did not come in but we heard the noise. We heard the gunshots. We heard them celebrating. We heard them shouting. It was horrible! I cannot even begin to describe the horror of it all. They flew the al-Shabaab flag and lined up dead bodies in the streets, and they kept shouting ‘Allahu Akubar!’ We feel very exposed now, especially as they overran the police station and forced the police to retreat.”
Was the attack political or religious? The answer is complicated. An Open Doors worker commented, “This incident happened against the backdrop of a complex mix of ethnic and religious tension. There is no doubt that their [al-Shabab’s] targeting of Christians is an attempt to punish Kenya for its military campaign against al-Shabaab in Somalia. But it is also part of an attempt to extend strict Islamic dominance in these regions.”
A church leader in one of the towns in this region spoke honestly about this difficult time and the understandable range of very human responses to the trauma. “Many Christians have left. Others stayed but do not come to church anymore out of fear. We now visit them in their homes, counseling and trying to encourage them to come back to church. Some are slowly coming back but others are not yet strong enough. One told me the other day, ‘You continue going to church because you have faith, when I get more faith like you, I will come back to church.'” Many Christians have been severely traumatized. Some are antagonistic towards their hostile neighbors, others very angry and still others, especially those who witnessed attacks, desire revenge.
Mpeketoni’s politically complex story helps to explain the extreme hostilities there. A small town on the Coast of Kenya, it was birthed in the 1960s when the first president of the Republic of Kenya, Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, started a settlement in Mpeketoni near a fresh water lake.
Mpeketoni, and the surrounding area, were ancestral lands belonging to the Swahili Bajuni (most of whom speak fluent Arabic and Somali, and have relatives living in Somalia) and to a small tribe of hunter-gatherers, the almost extinct Sanye people.
Tension has been steadily growing in the region as the traditional tribes’ demands for compensation for and/or restoration of their ancestral lands have remained unanswered. This tension has increased simultaneously with the growth of radical Islam and push for the secession of the Coast Province.
Open Doors has a long history of working in Kenya’s Northeast and Coastal regions, which, unlike the rest of the country, are largely Muslim. In recent years, Somalia’s extremist al-Shabaab movement has killed locals-especially Christians-and kidnapped foreigners in retaliation for Kenya’s battle with al-Shabaab in Somalia and in an attempt to rid the area of its Christian testimony. Open Doors workers have been training church leaders to help their congregations as they face this persecution. “There is a lot of uncertainty about the future,” said a Kenyan pastor. “The Word of God is the only hope we hold on to.”
This attack on Christians in Mpeketoni was not the first and will not be the last. Open Doors has been developing a close relationship with the local church, standing with them as they face persecution. Open Doors has also supported them through Bible distribution, training and socio-economic development. In the past, area pastors have assured Open Doors that they are here to stay. And as long as the persecution persists, Open Doors will be there as well.
Father, our hearts weep as we consider the hardship and trauma experienced by these Christians in northeast Kenya at the hands of al-Shabab. Thank You for the testimony of Your church; for their strong faith as they walk with You through this troubling time. Thank You that they have remained in this barren and hostile place, serving and growing Your church. Thank You for the unity You have brought to the churches in the region, a blessing in the midst of the horror. And thank You for the work of Open Doors as they stand by Your church there, helping them to bear up under the trauma, to make sense of their suffering, and to obtain the resources needed for survival. As we go about our lives here, bring to mind often the Christians in Mpeketoni and other villages in the area, that we might pray with urgency on their behalf to You, our God of great mercy and strength. Grant these people, precious in Your sight, the daily courage and strength to continue living for Christ in these difficult circumstances. In the name of Jesus, our strength and hope. Amen.