'Kenya's 'Pope holiday' puts church and state too close for comfort'

Pope Francis waves to a crowd at the University of Nairobi, Kenya, as he arrives to deliver a giant open-air mass on November 26, 2015.

Story highlights

  • President of Atheists in Kenya believes public holiday tied to papal visit is unconstitutional
  • He lodged appeal with High Court trying to block the move
  • He argues the state should maintain a strictly secular position

Harrison Mumia is president of Atheists In Kenya. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.

(CNN)Pope Francis is currently in Africa for the first time. His visit has elicited a lot of excitement, leading to a flurry of activities by the state, media and the church.

It will be remembered that the Catholic Church is well established in most African countries, especially in East Africa, and particularly in Kenya. Over 20% of Kenyans profess the Catholic faith.
As a part of the preparations that were being made to welcome Pope Francis to Kenya, a public holiday was declared on 26 November by the Kenyan government. This came as a shock to me, and indeed to part of the atheist and secular community in Kenya. I therefore moved to court to challenge this declaration under Articles 8, 9 and 32 of the Kenyan constitution.
    Harrison Mumia, president of Atheists In Kenya.
    My decision to move to court has received a lot of backlash from the largely religious community in the country. To demonstrate this, in an article appearing in the Kenyan Star newspaper on 26 November, 2015, the editor described my move to court as a show of disrespect to the Pope.
    At the onset, I must say that I admire Pope Francis. He is a liberal, modern Pope, whose demeanor contrasts sharply with that of previous Popes. His views on climate change, his seemingly accommodative approach towards gays and lesbians and his recognition for the evolution theory are some of the things that endear him to me.
    My decision to move to court has nothing to do with the Pope's visit. It has nothing to do with the Catholic Church, and its freedom of worship. It has everything to do with promoting secularism in Kenya.

    Unconstitutional?

    Article 8 of the Kenyan Constitution guarantees the separation of church and state. It states that there shall be not state religion. The fact that Christians constitute a majority of Kenyans does not entitle them to impose their beliefs and practices on the rest of the nation.
    And even if the head of state is a Catholic, the running of government affairs must not be about his personal religious inclinations. That's the beauty of Kenya's new constitution.
    The declaration of a public holiday by the Kenyan Government on the basis of the Pope's visit to Kenya grossly violated the principle of separation of church and state under article 8.
    It is my conviction that we must prohibit the expression of religious beliefs in all public institutions. No laws should be passed by parliament or the government that promote religious activities. This means that we must not declare public holidays in honor of a specific religion, sect or faith.

    'The duty of every Kenyan'

    I have a lot of respect for Pope Francis, yet I believe it is the duty of every Kenyan to protect and defend the constitution. We must honor the provisions of the constitution to keep religion out of the public arena.
    I want to address the Catholics in Kenya specifically, since they are bound to misconstrue my actions.
    Catholics are free to attend mass on any day prescribed by the Catholic Church. The state should have nothing to do with it. With respect to the Pope's visit, I have no problem with the sort of reception that the state has accorded the Pope. The speeches, the media coverage and the interfaith dialogue between the Pope and Muslims, Anglicans and Hindus are important for the country.
    The Pope can positively influence change, especially for a country as tribally divided as Kenya. The Pope is a unifying force, and I am sure that he will pass a strong message of unity and reconciliation in Kenya.
    But I have to conclude and say that a lot of Kenyans are distorting this debate. I doubt many Kenyans truly understand what it means to have a secular state. The history of the country, right from pre-colonial era has a lot to do with this.