Living the faith in Kenya, five years after major terrorist attack

ON APRIL 2nd, 2015, gunmen stormed the Garissa University College in Garissa, Kenya, killing 148 people, and injuring 79 or more. The terrorist group and Al-Qaeda offshoot Al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for the attack. Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) spoke with Bishop Joseph Alessandro of Garissa, Kenya. A Maltese, he spoke about the aftermath of the terrorist attack and the state of the local Church.

You have been working as a missionary in Kenya for many years. Can you tell us about your pastoral work and experience?
I have been in Kenya for about 14 years, in two separate periods. I have been the ordinary bishop there since 2015. The diocese is the largest in Kenya at more than 55,000 square miles, but the faithful are few because it’s a semi-desert, close to Somalia and Ethiopia.

Catholics mostly come from the up-country because of work; government employees, civil servants, teachers, nurses, doctors and a few businesspeople. There are seven parishes, very much scattered one from another. Besides the distances the roads are not good and not safe, as there have been attacks by terrorist groups. We try to provide catechesis and last year we had some couples who had their marriage blessed. It was a big event in the diocese. We also prepare children for Baptism, Confirmation and First Communion. That’s the pastoral work we are doing, then we have what some people call social work, though I prefer to call it charity work.

How would you describe the faith of these Catholics?
Their faith is very strong, although they have challenges because it’s a predominantly Muslim environment. Sometimes when attacks happen, the victims are always up-country people who are Christians, not only Catholics, but also other Christians. This could sometimes instill fear in them especially when we have feasts or big gatherings. We find help from the government; when we inform them about our activities, they provide us with security. On Sundays during Masses we try to create a safe environment for the faithful.

Cardinal John Njue of Nairobi at a morque following Garissa attack

Five years ago, Al-Shabaab struck Garissa.
The victims were all Christians, from various denominations. It was really a shock to the whole nation, and especially to the Church in Garissa, because there were Catholics amongst them whom we knew used to come to our churches on Sundays. I used to go to the university campus to celebrate Mass and hear confessions. I admired them so much because they were very active. When the attack happened at the university, some foreign reporters came to our church the following Sunday, it was Easter, and they interviewed some people and asked them, “Aren’t you afraid to come to church?” They said: “Yes, we are afraid but if we have to die, it’s better to die in the church than on the street.”

We thank God that things have returned almost to normal, even though there are still some sporadic attacks from terrorist groups in our diocese. The last two months there have been about 16 of these incidents and some 60 people lost their lives.

How is the Church responding to this situation?
We have a team made up of religious leaders—Muslims, Protestants, Catholics, Methodists and some others—and we meet regularly so that we try to create a bond among ourselves; and if we see something that is not going right, we discuss it to prevent the situation from worsening. We must move forward. These are extremists, not everyone is like that. We try to educate our people to differentiate between the terrorists and those Muslims who are not terrorists. For their part, the Muslims try to tell their people that Christians are their brothers, although there are differences. We must live together as brothers and sisters.

—Grace Attu