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 CNS Story:

AFRICA-KENYA Mar-12-2009 (860 words) With photos. xxxi

In Kenya, dioceses fight to control ever-present ethnic tensions

By Liz Quirin
Catholic News Service

ELDORET, Kenya (CNS) -- It was the Christmas holidays, and diocesan offices were closed. James Kimisoi, head of the peace and justice commission of the Diocese of Eldoret, planned to be in the office only to pay people who monitored the polls in the December 2007 national elections.

Mwai Kibaki was declared the winner and sworn in as Kenya's president an hour later. Then the violence began, said Kimisoi. Homes were looted and burned -- some with the people locked inside -- and some Kenyans were beaten and killed. International observers claimed the election was rigged, and as supporters of opposition leader Raila Odinga expressed outrage, the violence escalated, pitting rival ethnic groups against each other.

The bishop and those diocesan workers who could safely make it to the diocesan compound opened the gates and offered shelter to about 10,000 people.

By Feb. 28, 2008, when a power-sharing government was announced and Odinga became Kenya's prime minister, the overt postelection violence had stopped, and all of the diocesan resources were being used to care for the area's displaced people while promoting reconciliation and peace-building.

One year later, the diocese had made great strides in rebuilding trust among neighbors, but church officials had run out of money to provide most of the services offered before the violence began.

Today, many of those displaced by violence remain living in tents instead of their homes. An uneasy peace crisscrosses the country, where many have said violence bubbles just below the surface, ready to explode again.

Part of the unease remains because people do not trust one another, said Father Charles Lukati, development coordinator for the Diocese of Eldoret.

Church officials also said the perpetrators of the violence have not been named or brought to justice, and many worry that if perpetrators are not held accountable for their crimes, the violence will be repeated and possibly escalate. A government truth commission has drawn up names of perpetrators, but those names have not been made public.

"Without justice there can be no peace," said Msgr. Michael Rop, Eldoret diocesan vicar general.

"The political violence has disrupted pastoral activities," he told Catholic News Service. "This is the biggest disruption anyone has seen."

On the other side of the country, on the coast in Malindi, Bishop Francis Baldacchino said the postelection violence "was horrible. Nobody expected such a tragedy."

Once the violence began, Catholic officials focused on helping the displaced and victims of violence. For instance, the U.S. bishops' Catholic Relief Services helped set up water and latrines in the Eldoret church compound when the refugees were camped there.

Many Kenyans have received help to rebuild with grants from the Eldoret Diocese through international church aid agencies like CRS and Caritas Australia.

Voucher programs in villages have given people money to spend on materials to rebuild and replace some of the household items and farm implements destroyed in the violence. Fraud-reduction processes have been established, and village committees were directed to look first at women and children and single heads of households in determining eligibility.

While not everyone qualified to receive the vouchers, the program has made a difference in villages where it was used.

One project in the Eldoret Diocese brought together people in two villages to build a "peace road." A portion of the road always existed, and the two villages, which supported different political candidates in the election, belonged to the same parish: St. Mary's Church.

A great deal of mistrust existed between the two villages and spilled over into the parish.

"This is a miracle road," said St. Mary's pastor, Father Thomas Dougherty, a Scottish member of the St. Patrick Missionary Society who has lived in Kenya for many years. "The Kikuyu (a tribe that supports Kibaki) and the Kalenjins (who support Odinga) are working together on the road. It's a real miracle after what happened to us."

The project requires youths from both villages to work an eight-hour day, and their wages are paid from a grant from Caritas Australia. Elders from both villages mentor the youths.

Since the road is almost finished, the youths are asking for other projects they can work on together.

"The people of both communities are showing the world action," Father Dougherty said. "The country of Kenya is full of talk but little action. A man told me: 'Our words of peace and unity are in this road because we did it together.'"

Eldoret's diocesan director, Kimisoi, said the work that went into the project before it was begun, and the hours and hours of meetings with the bishop and staff have paid off.

"That's why they have not had any difficulties (with the road project)," he said.

Always just below the surface is the issue of land ownership. The violence began as a politically motivated event, then degenerated into ethnic violence. At the core are issues of land ownership that were not settled in the 1960s when the British relinquished colonial ties to the country.

The situation is complicated, said Father Charles Kirui, pastor of St. Patrick's Parish in Burnt Forest village, but "at the end of the day we're all God's children."


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