KENYA: Christians and Muslims at loggerheads over Islamic courts

July 31, 2009

Christians in Kenya say Islamic courts are not necessary but some unnamed Muslims in the east African country have been quoted as saying if such institutions are not in the constitution, they could break away and form their own state. This week representatives of the two different faiths engaged in a shouting match in the coastal city of Mombasa. They were putting their views to a group of experts at a hearing where a group of Muslims insisted that Islamic courts, known locally as Kadhis, should be included in a new constitution. "The courts are not necessary since the current constitution gives individuals the right to religious preferences and worship," Anglican Bishop Julius Kalu of Mombasa said on July 27, while presenting views to the Committee of Experts on the Constitution Review. Church leaders have since 1991, when Kenya started a debate on writing a new constitution, protested against including the Islamic courts in the basic law. Currently one section of the constitution provides for a Chief Kadhi and Kadhi Courts, and gives them powers to decide on personal legal issues between Muslims. Sheikh Khalifa Mohammed, who chairs the Council of Islamic Preachers of Kenya, called for tolerance from other religions in Kenya where Muslims make up about 10 percent of the 39 million people, while Christians are close to 80 percent. This is a second attempt to write a new constitution for Kenya, but church leaders argue including the Islamic courts would contradict the principles that underpin the country's legal system and that stress the separation of State and religion. Pentecostal churches said in a statement, "It would also mean one religion has been elevated above others." Muslim leaders have stepped up calls for inclusion of the courts in the new laws, stating the matter is not negotiable. "If they think we are few, we are ready to break way from the country," an unnamed Muslim leader was quoted as saying on July 28 in Mombasa, Kenya's second largest city, where most of the inhabitants are Muslims. The leaders said the followers of Islamic faith had specific needs that could only be addressed by their courts. Muslim scholars argue that it was only after Christian missionaries accepted to allow and respect the courts that they were allowed to evangelize in the East African coastal strip. "The courts will deal with marriage, divorce and inheritance among the Muslims, which have nothing to do with Christians," said Sheikh Mukhtar Khitamy, of the Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims. "We will defend the presence of the courts in the constitution by all means."