Christians have come under repeated attacks in North Eastern Kenya at the hands of Al-Shabaab
The congregation in Garissa prays under armed guard following the deadly attack in April
The clergy say they are gaining in confidence and want to return to normal
Christians have come under repeated attacks in North Eastern Province in Kenya at the hands of Al-Shabaab militants who have killed hundreds.
It’s sunrise over the Tana River. Traffic starts to flow over the bridge and morning rush hour begins. What looks like the beginning of a normal workday here has a much darker undertone. Most of the commuters are day laborers, people going into their offices, but also many Christians who are too scared to sleep inside Garissa town. They have decided to move themselves and their families across to the other side of the river to safety.
We met Esther as she was crossing the bridge on foot on her way to work. She is a mother of three and a Christian. When we ask her why she decided to move her and her family out of town she tells us: “It is because of Al-Shabaab that I moved out of Garissa. You can be shot anytime while you are walking. Even when we’re at home they can just come from the bush.”
In April this year, hundreds of students at Garissa University in northern Kenya came under attack when Al-Shabaab militants from across the border in Somalia raided dormitories at the college. Separating Christian students from their Muslim classmates, the raiders killed 147 and wounded dozens more. Today, the university stands empty.
Christians in North Eastern Kenya have come under repeated attacks by Al-Shabaab militants.
At Sunday Mass in Garissa’s Cathedral, Our Lady of Consolation, the benches are full. The congregation is praying under armed guard but they’re praying nonetheless.
Each Sunday brings with it new threats from Al-Shabaab. Garissa’s Christians are told that if you worship here, you’ll die. One of those attending Sunday Mass, Patrick Gitau tell us that despite the risks: “Every Sunday I’m here it’s my cathedral. Yeah I’m here I was baptized in this church.”
Leading this congregation in these uncertain times is Maltese priest Joseph Alessandro, now the Bishop of Garissa, who came to Kenya in the early 1990s.
He was shot by separatist militants on the Kenyan coast in 1993, and left the country to receive medical attention, but he was determined to return. He eventually came back to Garissa five years ago.
In spite of the threats that arrive before every Sunday mass, he says he would never consider leaving his congregation.
“It’s not a matter of choice,” he says. “It’s our duty to remain here. Since we are appointed as bishops, we have to stay – not withstanding what happens – ‘til there are no Catholics, it’s our duty to stay.”
In the wake of the attack, he says, many students stopped attending their classes.
“Before the Garissa attack, we had 460 students in our school. After the attack, only 300 reported back. The others left Garissa or were scared to come back [to school] because of the attack.”
Alessandro says he hopes that the institutions forced to shut down because of the threat of terror will soon reopen and that life will return to normal.
“Now we are gaining confidence again – we have security on the compound for the school and even during the night for the sisters, for the priests.”
He along with his fellow bishops and nuns, have been a constant in this community.
Sister Evelyn Ingoshe, has been part of the Diocese of Garissa for two years. She works at the school next to the Garissa Cathedral. Sister Evelyn tells us that she loves children and it is for that reason that she has devoted her whole life to serve them.
Being fully aware of the risks involved she decided nevertheless to come and work in this part of Kenya where Christians have suffered many attacks and there are weekly, if not daily threats.
“I knew that there was a danger in coming to this place of the country for a non Muslim but I followed my heart and wanted to do it.”
During her two years in north eastern Kenya she has worked in some of the most dangerous areas such as Mandera and Wajir – places that have suffered numerous attacks on Christians.
She is determined in her faith. “If you can go to your place of work you can also go to a place of worship,” he said.
The diocese has received words of encouragement from the Pope himself. At the invitation of the diocese, Bishop Alessandro tells us that the Pope added Kenya to his Africa trip in November. He says members of the congregation will be chosen to travel to Nairobi to meet him.
For now though, he and his bishops are focusing on the daily task of keeping their flock safe as best they can. The bishop tells us: “We are people of God, we are people of faith. God never abandons us and maybe in moments when we feel that we are left on our own. There are those moments that God might be very close to us. Even if we don’t feel him.”