A Discussion with Francis Kuria, Executive Director of Inter-Religious Council of Kenya
April 10, 2015
Background: In a testament to Kenya’s diversity, all major religious traditions gather at the national level around the same table as part of the Inter-Religious Council of Kenya (IRCK). Dr. Francis Kuria, who has been involved in the organization for several years in many capacities, is the current executive director. He met with Crystal Corman on April 10, 2015 to discuss interfaith relations in Kenya and explain IRCK’s activities. As he outlines the origin of the organization, it is clear IRCK has actively responded to contextual needs such as HIV/AIDS orphans and, more recently, conflict and peace. Faith communities are also mobilizing around values that promote good governance, accountability, and improved social cohesion.
How would you describe IRCK?
At IRCK we try to create an interfaith mechanism based on institutional representation, or institutional membership. For sustainable interfaith engagement, you need to focus on religious institutions and faith communities as institutions, rather than individuals within those institutions. This avoids the challenge of replacing a charismatic, devoted leader who moves out of leadership within an institution for some reason or another.
In an interfaith council, we take the position that it is the institutions that are in dialogue, not individuals. So it’s Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims (SUPKEM) which is in dialogue with the Councils of Bishops, which is in dialogue with National Council of Churches in Kenya, which is in dialogue with the Hindu Council of Kenya, etc. Therefore, you must be a representative of your institution to sit on the council.
Why is it so important to engage with an institution, rather than an individual?
From the perspective of the council, we are trying to be in fellowship to find answers to common problems. And these problems are felt by our congregants; it’s not problems felt by the individual per se but by our congregants. The whole purpose of IRCK is to create mechanisms for advocacy for change in the situation of Kenyans and, therefore, discover the commonality of our understanding of the problem and our prescription of the solution.
We address each issue through a process. Instead of personal opinion or reaction, it is the institution which has to process this issue, within all their structures, and then bring their position to the table. Our goal is come to a place where we can say, "This is IRCK’s position on this matter," which is the collation of those positions and a consensus-building process based on those positions.
If we take the issue of terrorism, for example, we want the view of each institution, not the individual holding the chair. So the chair of the Evangelical Alliance of Kenya, just as an example, may have his own views—even his church may have its views—but as part of our council, he would ask, "As the Evangelical Alliance, what is our position on the issue of terrorism? And how should we deal with it?" When the pastor comes to IRCK, he brings documentation of what the Evangelical Alliance feels about terrorism, and what should be done about terrorism.
Who are the members of IRCK?
There are nine institutions. We have the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops; the National Council of Churches in Kenya; the Evangelical Alliance of Kenya, which represent the Evangelical churches. We have the Seventh Day Adventists and the Organization of African Instituted Churches (OAIC). Those five organizations are the Christian churches. We have three Muslim organizations—the Supreme Council of Kenyan Muslims, the National Muslim Leaders Forum, and the Shi’a Asna Ashri Jamaat. And then, we have the Hindu Council of Kenya. We take our representation from the leadership of these organizations, including from the women and the youth.
What does your organization look like?
We have a steering board, which is made up of the chairs and secretary generals of these organizations, and then we have an executive committee under it. We also have standing commissions, which are programmatic in the areas of health, peace and conflict, governance, and environmental change. I always tell people that our job at IRCK is to convene religious people to dialogue and develop common positions. We also have a staff of 12 to support these efforts.
You say youth and women are represented in these structures?
Yes; they are represented because we want to gather the views of everybody. We have the Kenya Women Faith Network, which is an umbrella for the various religious institutions’ women’s organizations, such as the Mothers Union, the Ladies Pastors Fellowship, Sisters Network, and the Catholic Women’s organizations. We have the youth network, which is representation for the youth. The leadership of those two networks is used to populate the standing commissions and the executive committee.
How did IRCK begin in Kenya?
In its original form, it was a chapter of the World Conference of Religions for Peace (WCRP), founded in 1983. Since the World Conference of Religions for Peace wanted to hold a world assembly in Kenya in 1984, they formed a chapter to bring together the Kenyan religious leaders in preparation for the world assembly. After the world assembly, the chapter remained, and about 10 or 12 religious leaders continued with this dialogue until 2001, when another big event happened in Kenya.
There was an explosion of the orphan problem in Africa, and a group formed called the Hope Africa Children’s Initiative (HACI) wanted to look at how they could mobilize the religious communities in Africa to respond to the orphan problem. They congregated in Nairobi and formed the Africa Council of Religious Leaders (ACRL). This gave the impetus to start program work in Kenya as well as Uganda, Malawi, Zimbabwe, and Ethiopia. There were six African countries.
Between 1983 and 2001, the interfaith work in Kenya was done within the offices of the various members. But by 2001, with the orphan and HIV/AIDS crisis, they made a decision to formalize an organization since there was programmatic work which needed to be done. They started the Secretariat of the then WCRP Kenya chapter. In 2002, this office was opened.
When we did the 2003-2004 strategic planning, other things came up beyond orphans, including peace and conflict transformation. So, IRCK was born in 2004 as an independent, autonomous interreligious network.
How did you become involved in IRCK?
I was the first employee. I was employed as program manager for HIV/AIDS and children at the beginning.
So your work is a mix of program activities on the ground and also joint public statements?
Yes; we did a lot of interventions on the ground initially but, as the orphan problem went down with the right prevention and more people living longer, we moved into stigma reduction, HIV prevention, and then we moved into maternal and child health. In our early days, the issue of governance came up around the constitution debate as well as corruption and anti-corruption.
As a national body with all major religious organizations represented, we also make public statements. For example, after the Garissa University terrorist attack last year, and during the demonstrations over electoral reforms, we mobilized to make a statement. We managed to bridge the gap on issues between the main opposition coalition and the ruling coalition, meeting the leaders of both groups several times. These meetings culminated in an agreement of a dialogue process that allowed the opposition to call off the street demonstrations and the formation of a Joint Parliamentary Select Committee to engage in the negotiation. The religious leaders have also convened a Multi-Sectoral Forum, with representation from all non-state actors, including the private sector and labor movement, to also provide input into the electoral reforms. We do agree on this process of how to reach out to Kenyans.
Religious actors were definitely engaged in the constitution process. How was IRCK involved?
At that particular time in Kenya, the Ufungamano Initiative, an initiative of religious people, civil society, and some political parties in the opposition, was pushing for constitutional reform. They were drivers or advocates for a multi-party system and constitutional review process. Unfortunately, in 2005, there was a disagreement within the faith sector regarding the draft of the constitution, namely over the qadi courts. This strained Ufungamano. The leadership could not hold a neutral space, so IRCK came in to continue with the constitutional reform, but also to try to create safe space for dialogue on the issues, especially on the qadi courts.
What are some ways that IRCK works on peace issues today?
Peace is at two levels. Yes, we work on interfaith relations through dialogue and address issues that arise. However, we also do have a programmatic piece on conflict transformation that we call Peace and National Cohesion. We have had projects in Marsabit and Isiolo, where we are trying to look at the key drivers of conflict in the regions, and then create mechanisms to address those problems. We also sign peace agreements between communities or develop local interfaith mechanisms to address local issues around peace. We’ve done that in about 23 counties in Kenya.
Do you partner with organizations that are doing peace?
We do collaborate a lot. Like now, in Isiolo, we are working with a group called Anglican Development Services-Mount Kenya and one or two other organizations. We also are members of something called the Kenya Peace Network, where we are collaborating with 13 other organizations.
How would you describe interreligious relations in Kenya currently?
They are very dynamic. If you asked that question before October or November 2014, I’d have said interfaith relations were strengthening. But, after the massacre in Mandera and the killings in Mombasa, I would say that there is a lot of tension for interfaith in Kenya. So, right now, I wouldn’t say that we are at the best point we have ever been. There is a lot of bridge-building we still have to do.
But I would say that over the years there has been better appreciation of interfaith, and therefore, the need for it and commitment to it. The various religious leaders have recognized that they can’t go alone on some of these issues.
What is your opinion on the need for intra-faith dialogue? Does IRCK engage on this?
We don’t deal with it ourselves as it’s not part of our mandate, but I would say that the process for how we develop common positions around issues requires great intra-faith work. I remember when we asked the OAIC to develop a common position on HIV, it was a big challenge within their community because there were about 56 churches who had to agree on a common position. That required strong intra-faith work.
If you look at the Catholic Church, it has clear mechanisms for Christian dialogue. They have this annual cyclical process that ensures there is dialogue within the church. If you look at the Seventh Day Adventists, they have these annual camps where a lot of dialogue takes place and issues are thrashed out. The same thing with National Council of Churches in Kenya. The structures do encourage intra-faith dialogue. Maybe some of the less structured organizations tend to have challenges in processing issues.
I guess the challenge is ensuring that all the voices are heard. As a national body, how do you go about this?
The question which has been asked is first, do you have all the people at the table? And, number two, do you have the correct people on the table? We don’t have all the people at the table. I personally am of the school of thought that if you have 80 percent, it’s a pass. You don’t need 90 percent, or even 99 percent. There are people who think that, to get good interfaith, you need everybody; you need 100 percent. To me, you can never have 100 percent. Also, you run the risk of the cacophony of voices drowning out reason.
We have tried to include fringe actors, but they are not organized. We have found that, closer to the ground, we are able to identify recognized leaders to involve. As an example, when we went to form the Kericho Interfaith Network, we invited the Kipsigis community’s spiritual group called the Talai. In Isiolo, we got the spiritual leader of the Samburu and the Borana to sit with us. We do try to accommodate this.
What’s your current work?
Each of the four thematic areas of IRCK is undertaking a variety of actions. Health and Wellbeing is doing a lot of work on maternal and child health, including collaboration with the Clinton Health Institute on reducing maternal diarrhea and two other projects with Christian Aid and Open Society of East Africa on rights-based approach to maternal health. In peace, we are working in Isiolo and Mombasa on anti-radicalization and improved governance of county’s service provision, especially to the youth. In our governance program, we have developed a document on national values. We have a project on social transformation based on national values. We also have a project addressing the issue of how a person would elect a credible leader, and we have developed a booklet on objective criteria for electing a credible leader. This booklet will be disseminated as we approach the 2017 general elections. Additionally, we have done a lot of work around social budgeting, and we are working in seven county governments using a model of the social budgeting observatories and social intelligence reporting to gather data on social service delivery and then influence the budgeting process to ensure the community needs are factored in the county government budgets.
What is the goal behind the values statement that you will be working on?
We have adopted a liberal democracy and a market economy to drive development of the country. But, what we have found is that, to deal with social injustice (and there is a lot of social injustice and inequality in general), these two issues of liberal democracy and market economics do not address how members of society relate with each other. That’s why you can see a lot of violence in society—gender-based violence, corruption, and misgovernance. There are no national standards.
If you look at a lot of the countries in Europe, and even the United States, the Judeo-Christian foundation is the values system on which those countries are based. But, in Africa, that is not there. The basis of the state is weak because the guiding principles or joining values that bind you together are weak. Kenya’s constitution includes national values and principles, 17 of them. At this point, it is difficult to hold these as a benchmark and speak about all of these consistently within and across communities.
How has IRCK approached these 17 values and principles?
What we are trying to do is create a message highlighting five to six national values as a benchmark for societal relations. They can be a standard to hold each other to account. We have decided to base these values on some scriptural references. They are to be accompanied by Hindu, Christian, Muslim references that provide a religious foundation.
A lot of people look at it from the law side, that these are criminal factors. But sometimes the court of public opinion is more important. And what shapes public opinion is a set of agreed-upon values and standards. For example, if someone is told to resign, on the basis that they are suspected of saying something wrong, legally there might not be enough evidence to convict them. But their reputation may be ruined in the court of public opinion, which is the more important court in terms of building a nation.