x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Christian leaders in Kenya resist democratic constitution

Anglican bishops have threatened to scupper a proposed constitution that enhances democracy but contains measures that they say go against Christian values.

A trade unionist in Nairobi makes it clear how he intends to vote in the referendum on Kenya's proposed constitution.
A trade unionist in Nairobi makes it clear how he intends to vote in the referendum on Kenya's proposed constitution.

NAIROBI // Church leaders in Kenya have threatened to scupper a proposed constitution that enhances democracy but contains measures that they say go against Christian values. Anglican bishops want to remove clauses from the constitution that allow for Islamic courts in Muslim regions of the country and permit women to seek abortions in some cases. Kenyans will vote on the constitution in a referendum in July. Politicians are backing the bill, which they say strengthens democracy. However, the abortion issue could become contentious in a country that is mostly Christian and conservative.

The drafting of a new constitution is part of the deal that ended Kenya's bloody post-election violence of 2008. Politically motivated mobs slaughtered more than 1,300 people in two months of clashes. A power sharing deal struck between Mwai Kibaki, the president, and Raila Odinga, his chief rival, ended the violence and created the post of prime minister for Mr Odinga. The draft constitution limits the executive's power, reforms the judiciary, deals with land ownership issues and seeks to eliminate the problems that led to the post-election violence. Mr Odinga and other politicians have encouraged voters to adopt the constitution.

"It is my conviction that the new constitution will strengthen our gains," Mr Odinga said in a speech over the weekend. "Let us not be scared of change. I urge you to stay the course." But church leaders, who hold sway in this religious country where the majority of the population is Christian, said they are willing to forgo the political gains. Christian groups, backed by American conservative organisations, ramped up their campaign to defeat the constitution.

"The current constitution isn't an option for Kenya," said Peter Karanja, the secretary general of the National Council of Churches of Kenya, the main umbrella group of Protestant churches. Government and church leaders have been holding talks to work out differences in the draft charter. Those talks recently broke down after church leaders learnt that the constitution could not be amended before the referendum.

Abortions are illegal in Kenya under current law, but hundreds of thousands of women still seek them each year. The existing law, however, does allow a doctor to perform an abortion if a woman's life is in danger. The proposed constitution remains the same as the old one on abortion. But church leaders fear a failure to change the phrasing will open the door to legalising abortion, saying that defining a threat to a woman's health could be interpreted broadly.

"It opens the door to abortion on demand, which is why Christian organisations who are pro-life are so opposed to that provision," said Jordan Sekulow, director for international operations at the anti-abortion American Center for Law and Justice based in Washington. The centre, one of the American groups now involved in Kenya's debate, was founded by Pat Robertson, the controversial American evangelical preacher.

A 2005 African Union protocol requires member states to protect a woman's right to abortion in the case of sexual assault, rape, incest or when a pregnancy endangers the mother's health. Many African countries have outlawed abortion except in those cases, though abortion is legal in South Africa. Last month, the Center for Reproductive Rights, a New York-based group, wrote to Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, asking her to call on Kenya to ensure the draft constitution does not undermine access to abortions.

The group says at least 2,600 women die each year from unsafe abortions in Kenya. Abortion rights advocates feel the limits in both the current and proposed legislation go too far. The draft constitution also keeps in place Islamic courts, known as kadhis courts in Kenya. The courts arbitrate on personal matters such as inheritance and marriage for members of the country's Muslim minority. Kenya is in the middle of a drive to register voters ahead of the referendum, which is to be held before the end of July. An opinion poll released last week by the Kenyan firm Synovate showed that 64 per cent of Kenyans support the draft constitution. Newspaper columnists have also weighed in on the debate.

"Dear men and women of the cloth," wrote Lucy Oriang, a columnist for the Daily Nation. "Now that you have formally declared war on the draft constitution from the pulpit, it is to be hoped that you will get your act together and come up with more convincing answers to the hard questions you must field." In an editorial, the influential newspaper blasted a US anti-abortion group for butting into Kenya's affairs.

"The decision by a right-wing Washington-based lobby to get directly involved in the campaign on the proposed constitution is both wrong and unwelcome," the newspaper said on Sunday. "It is the underlying concept of a foreign lobby directly influencing the outcome of a poll in a sovereign state that is most troubling." mbrown@thenational.ae