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Page last updated at 07:16 GMT, Monday, 1 September 2008 08:16 UK

Somali Christians struggle in Kenya

By Noel Mwakugu
BBC News, Nairobi

In a secluded house just outside the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, a group of men and women meets at least once a week to worship in secret.

Eastleigh, Nairobi
Nairobi's Eastleigh Estate has become known as Little Mogadishu

Their prayer session is simple and conducted in Somali. Elders take turns to pray or read verses from the Somali Bible before a sermon is delivered.

There are dozens of Somalis living in Nairobi who have converted from Islam to Christianity.

Some say they have been practising Christianity for more than 10 years.

But they live in constant fear of persecution from members of the Somali community, which is predominantly Muslim.

There is a sizeable Somali community in Kenya, comprising ethnic Somali Kenyans, and a large number of refugees from Somalia.

Most of the community lives in Nairobi's Eastleigh Estate, which is now referred to as Little Mogadishu, after Somalia's capital.

Fundamentalist threat

Many of the refugees fled the war in Somalia.

For a few, it was the threat of religious persecution that forced them to leave their homes and seek refuge in Kenya.

There was a small fellowship that used to meet in my house, about 12 of them - six of them were killed
Michael
Somali Christian refugee

"There was a group of people who wanted to kill me, so I was one of the first refugees to leave Mogadishu because I knew I would be a target as soon as the government collapsed," says Michael, one of the converts.

"The fundamentalists could easily attack me and kill me," he says.

Some of his fellow converts were not so lucky.

"They killed some of my friends. There was a small fellowship that used to meet in my house, about 12 of them - six of them were killed," he says.

Despite fleeing to Kenya, where Christianity is the major religion, life has still not improved for the Somali Christians.

They say they have suffered at the hands of their families and fellow Somalis in Kenya who are angry with their decision to change their religion.

They have been targets of physical attacks and beatings. In other instances, they have had their wives and children taken away from them.

Outcasts

To ward off these reprisal attacks, many hold on to their Muslim names in an attempt to blend in.

Away from home and rejected by their community, the converts say they have been forced to live as outcasts.

The Council of Imams and Preachers of Kenya (CIPK) has rejected claims that the Somali Christians are facing persecution.

Eastleigh, Nairobi
Some say they have suffered at the hands of fellow Somalis

"We are very saddened by these claims because Islam gives people the freedom to choose their faith," said Sheikh Hassan Omar, a CIPK official.

"I don't believe the stories by the Somali Christians that they have faced persecution because they converted to Christianity. These are lies," Sheikh Omar said.

He said Kenya has freedom of religion and association, and that the Somali Christians have the freedom to practise their faith and congregate and worship with other Christians.

He dismissed the claims as a ruse to get try to get asylum in the US and other Western countries.

"I would advise them, if they want to go [to the US], they should look for other channels and should not involve Islam and Muslims in the issue."

But Khatazar Gondwe from Christian Solidarity Worldwide, which has been lobbying for protection for the Somali Christians, says there is a problem.

"We have been in contact with the UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees) in Geneva who have acknowledged that this is an issue," Ms Gondwe says.

Numbers growing

The Somali Christians living in Kenya complain that the UNHCR in Nairobi has not been responsive to their plight.

"According to the refugees, in some cases [the UNHCR] are very unsympathetic, if not hostile, and tell these poor people to go back to camps before they will deal with them," Ms Gondwe says.

"In those camps, these people are in greater danger than they are even in Nairobi itself."

The UNHCR office in Nairobi has denied these claims, saying all refugees get an opportunity to present their case and receive the necessary protection.

UNHCR spokesman Emmanuel Nyabera says the agency has responded to a few cases concerning Somali Christians, but adds that some cases were rejected after they discovered that they were not genuine.

Despite the hardships the face, this unique group of Christians says its numbers are growing.

In the late 1990s, there were barely 20 Somali Christians in Nairobi, but now their number is close to 200, they say.

And they pray that one day they will be accepted by a society that jealously guards its religious beliefs.

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SEE ALSO
Somalia tops minority threat list
20 Mar 07 |  Special Reports
Man shot 'for Christian beliefs'
15 Apr 08 |  West Midlands
When Muslims become Christians
21 Apr 08 |  Magazine
Country profile: Somalia
18 Jun 08 |  Country profiles


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