The Churches That Aren’t

NAIROBI, Aug 19 (IPS) – A curious case involving 13 so-called “miracle babies” has sparked concern about the proliferation of new church groups in Kenya.

An elderly couple, Eddah and Michael Odera, claim to have had the children by immaculate conception over a five-year period, after they were prayed for by “Archbishop” Gilbert Deya who heads Deya Ministries. The well-to-do Kenyan preacher is based in the United Kingdom, where he is reportedly facing child trafficking charges.

Eddah Odera, who also claims to be pregnant at the moment, says her 37-year-old marriage was childless until the miraculous intervention by Deya five years ago.

However, birth records for her children could not be traced at the three hospitals where she claims to have delivered them.

The clinics, which operate in slum areas in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, have since been shut for failing to produce certificates of registration. Employees at the facilities were also arrested after they were found to be practicing without medical qualifications or licenses.

In addition, the “miracle babies” – aged between two months and five years – were taken into the care of the state Wednesday, and the Oderas arrested. Police intend conducting DNA tests to determine the parentage of the children, whom they suspect might be victims of a child smuggling racket.

The case, which has dominated newspaper headlines in Kenya, is prompting calls for government to investigate suspect religious ministries.

“Some of these churches, which are not part of the mainstream churches, have ulterior motives. They are out to make money, instead of preaching the gospel,” Gilbert Ogutu of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Nairobi told IPS.

“There are so many dubious groups involved in suspicious activities. The moment churches are found to be doing things that are not religious, they should be…acted upon,” he added.

No statistics on the growth of new ministries appear to be available, something which is unsurprising: a freedom of worship clause in the Kenyan constitution makes it possible for persons to establish religious groups without notifying authorities.

Yet, a casual observation of church attendance in the capital provides plenty of anecdotal evidence of the proliferation of new groups.

Empty lots in Nairobi have sprouted informal structures made from tarpaulin or iron sheeting, which overflow with followers. People in residential areas complain of the din from loud prayers and musical instruments which continue playing into the small hours of the morning in new suburban churches.

Certain cinemas and bars have also become worship centres on Sundays, during the early mornings and over lunch breaks. This is in striking contrast to the situation that prevailed in the capital about a decade ago, when churches were only found in designated areas.

Nahashon Ndung’u, chairman of Department of Religious Studies at Nairobi University, believes economic hardship lies at the root of this trend.

“The economic degradation (and) high rate of unemployment…have driven people to the wall, and these new movements come up purporting to provide solutions,” he told IPS.

“Some of these churches come claiming they can pray for one to get a job or wealth overnight. People then want to experiment with that, and in the process fall prey,” he added.

According to government statistics, 14 percent of Kenya’s work force is currently unemployed. Fifty-six percent of the country’s population of about 30 million lives below the poverty line of a dollar a day.

“If a movement has tendencies that are anti-social, the government has the right to regulate such a body. This is important in order to guard against further damage as has happened in other countries,” notes Ndung’u.

His comment is in reference to a March 2000 incident in Uganda where hundreds of followers of a cult named the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God set themselves ablaze. This was apparently because of predictions by one of the founders of the group, Joseph Kibweteere, that the world would come to an end that year.

Earlier this month, police in Nigeria discovered more than 80 bodies and 20 skulls in the vicinity of shrines near the southern village of Okija. About 30 people have been detained in connection with the matter, and it is alleged that an economic motive may have underpinned the victims’ deaths. The shrines are devoted to the Ogwugwu deity.

However, Kenya’s government says its ability to intervene in religious matters is limited.

“There has been so much clamour for democracy and freedom of association, there is no way the government will dictate to the people who to follow and who not to follow,” Nicholas Kanyiri, deputy secretary in the Ministry of Culture and Gender told IPS, adding “I think the whole thing has so much to do with our level of ignorance and poverty.”

Kanyiri conceded, however, that the “mirable baby” case might prompt government to set up a commission to monitor the activities of religious bodies.

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