Christians and Muslims in Kenya's coastal region are embroiled in a row over the control of schools, stirring tensions which both groups warn could destabilize peaceful co-existence between the two faiths.
"There is a problem here," Anglican Bishop Julius Kalu told Ecumenical News International from the coastal city of Mombasa. "Muslims want to own the existing schools under the sponsorship of Christians, especially Anglicans and Catholics."
Tensions heightened early in August after Zubeir Noor Hussein, a Muslim leader from the region, was quoted urging the government to allow the Islamic community to repossess public schools. "Muslims want to run all primary and secondary schools at the coast with a Muslim majority," Noor said on August 5 in the Daily Nation newspaper.
Christian leaders, who manage a large number of schools, have told the government that the proposal puts at risk harmonious coexistence between faiths that has existed for almost 40 years.
Kalu told ENI the government had ceded to some Muslim demands, without first consulting Christian leaders. "They are talking about the schools in which there is a majority of Muslims attending, but in reality, they want to take over all schools," said Kalu. He said Muslims also wanted special treatment for their children, especially females.
"They want them to ignore school uniforms and put on hijabs [head wear worn by Muslim females]. They want them to sit in separate desks away from the boys. This is making it difficult for head teachers," said Kalu. "We don't think this is necessary. It will also be hard to instill discipline into these children." In a joint letter to the government, Kalu and Roman Catholic Archbishop Boniface Lele of Mombasa said the demands risked hurting the current conducive climate for learning.
Sheikh Juma Ngao, the chairperson of the Kenya National Muslim Advisory Council, said however, "The Christians are stripping veils from our girls. If they continue, we will mobilize very strong defenses. We do not strip the crosses from Christian children."
The Christian leaders stated they will follow the laws of Kenya, which stipulate the appointment and the role of the school sponsor.
Muslims make up about 10 percent of Kenya's 39 million people, but they have a strong presence on the coast and form a majority in Kenya's second city of Mombasa.