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Kenya’s bid to regulate religious institutions

By Hawa Noor M.

In November 2014, a television exposé revealed how a Salvation Ministries Church pastor, Victor Kanyari, performed tricks in Nairobi to lure his followers into donating seed money to his “church”. The clip went viral, and the Kenyan government reacted by imposing an indefinite suspension of registration of new religious institutions (associations, societies, churches, mosques, temples etc) while calling for fresh registration of existing ones.[1] The existing religious bodies were also required to file details of their status and financial returns with the registrar of societies.

Attorney General Githu Muigai then announced that a framework was in the making to review the Societies Act and establish a special unit to manage religious institutions so that they operate like trade unions and political parties. According to him, operations of religious communities, churches, mosques and temples should be transparent and accountable and operate within the guidelines of spirituality that they purport to promote.[2]

What the new rules will mean

If adopted, the new set of regulations, known as the “Religious Societies Compliance Rules”, will define standards for religious institutions as well as local and foreign clergy. For one to become a local clergy he/she will have to obtain a certificate of good conduct from the police and clearance from the Ethics and Anti-corruption Commission while foreign clergy will have to have work permits and a recommendation from their diplomatic missions. The government will also be supplied with details of religious institutions such as its leaders, committee members and registered trustees as well as their location. Similarly, religious institutions will need to file annual returns of their exemption or no-exemption to pay taxes. Otherwise, they will be declared dormant while a religious body that does not comply with the “Religious Societies Compliance Rules” within 60 days will have its license revoked.[3]

Religious institutions like churches, mosques and temples have in the past been registered as charities under the Societies Act. ‘Societies’, in this case, refers to: any club, company, partnership, or other association of ten or more persons, whatever its nature or object, established in Kenya, or having its headquarters or chief place of business in Kenya and any branch of a society.[4] For a society to be registered, it is required that information such as the full name of the organization, details of office bearers, copies of identity cards, passport photos, and a copy of the Kenya Revenue Authority pin number must be provided.

It is due to these minimal conditions, whereby anyone can register an institution and call it a religious entity, that some are suspicious about the efficacy of the new rules and are calling for stricter regulation in consultation with the clergy.[5] Some other stakeholders argue that instead of introducing new regulations that may or may not necessarily be in accordance with the law, the existing Societies Act should be enhanced for use in cases of breach of conduct by any registered religious entity and individuals.[6]

In reaction to the scandal exposed by a TV channel and as a reaction to the Attorney General’s announcement, the National Council of Churches of Kenya, a national umbrella body of churches in the country, cautioned against ‘generalization’ and treatment of all churches as lawbreakers based on the action of a few individuals[7] and instead recommended that criminals should be dealt with according to the existing law. The Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims shares the same sentiment. [8]

Through the Attorney General, the government has on numerous occasions stated that its intention is not to interfere with the work of religious institutions but to foster cooperation and promote accountability within religious entities. The government’s dilemma, however, arises from tension between its secular nature and the constitutional provisions guaranteeing freedom of religion. On one hand, it realizes the danger of infringing upon the freedom of worship and association while on the other it is mandated to protect national values such as religious responsibility and coexistence (secularism), transparency and accountability regardless of the religious orientation of a society or association. Its stern action is therefore understandably more reactive, in response to pastor Kanyari’s exposure and the emerging security threats of violent extremism, as opposed to an intention to curtail religious freedom.

Vices in places of worship

The new rules come in the context of cases of misuse of religion and places of worship, particularly churches and mosques. So, it is a matter of adherence to established cultures, norms and practices in these institutions vis-a-vis stipulations in national laws and religious teachings. The visible increase in aggressive evangelism in several religious traditions has led to commercialization of religion and exploitation of poor citizens in search of spiritual solace and solutions to their day-to-day problems by those operating under religious brand names such as “prophets” and “saints”, hence attracting the attention of Kenyan authorities.

Another recent observation that brings the matter to light is the rise of the so-called cult rituals and sacrifice that hit climax with the death of a couple and their three children, alleged to have been members of a controversial Nigerian Church.[9] These and many other similar incidents left the Kenyan audience wondering on the interconnection between money and the contemporary position of religious institutions.

Also worrisome is the misuse of mosques by radical groups in Nairobi[10] and Mombasa, culminating in police raids[11] specifically on Masjid Musa and Sakina mosques in Majengo that in general point to an existing complex problem of radicalization among Muslim communities.

Given the prevailing circumstances, it is expected that the government will not look the other way when unscrupulous clergymen use places of worship to advance their extremist agenda or defraud and abuse citizens. When a religious institution becomes a source of threat to a country’s national security or to its citizens, the government is bound to take action. However, the question is: to what extent the government can exercise its powers while providing checks and balances in the activities of religious institutions without necessarily seeming to interfere with its affairs?

The burden lies in balancing its constitutional mandate vis-a-vis the rights to freedom of worship as guaranteed in the constitution and under the norm of separation of religion and state. Previously, only the government could scrutinize the clergy with the approval of the registrar of societies and the National Security Intelligence Services. Also, in the context of proposed amendments to the Public Benefits Organization Act (2013), which severely restricts the volume of foreign funding to local entities,[12] what will be the procedure of administering foreign funding to mosques—mainly from the Gulf States—and churches, mainly from western countries? How does the government intend to ascertain for what purpose these funds are utilized? Will the new regulations guarantee citizen security and safe religious spaces as the government goes about eradicating crimes and other vices from religious institutions?


In an era where the narrative of religious polarization prevails, regulation of religious institutions is necessary in order to curb other vices such as hate speech, to combat radicalization and promote religious tolerance. But, at the same time, for any such action to be successful, it will have to be conducted in a manner that will ensure a win-win situation with a clear-cut mandate of the government, on the one hand, and maintaining the independence of religious organizations on the other. With the proposal of the new rules, some religious institutions and their leaders have already come out to claim that they were not involved in the process of their formulation. This lack of buy-in from key stakeholders is the main flaw in this plan.

To prevent further suspicion of infringement on citizen’s right to worship, the process of regulating religious institutions will have to involve all stakeholders, especially the clergy from Christian and Muslim traditions. This will succeed only if their implementation is based on coordination between the government, religious leaders[13] and religious bodies such as the National Council of Churches of Kenya and the Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims as well as other civil society activists. One-way implementation of this set of rules may create more problems than it seeks to address.

This is particularly significant because Kenya sees itself as a deeply spiritual society that has strong faith in its clergy and so any exercise without the blessings of the latter will most likely not succeed. The fact that even after his scandal has been made public, pastor Kanyari’s church is still popular and is well attended, illustrates this point and the influence and power that religious narratives have in Kenya.[14]

Equally important is to carefully consider the aspect of control of funding and taxation. For it to be effective, the proposed framework will also have to be all-inclusive and take consideration of basic details such as the rampant corruption across all sectors, including the government and religious institutions. The misuse of religion and religious institutions is not limited to some sections of the clergy; politicians are equally culpable as they mobilize voters and run campaigns by appropriating religious slogans. Therefore, for the new regulations to prevent misuse of religious institutions and places of worship, promote a culture of peaceful coexistence and ensure rule of law, the relationship between politicians and the clergy will also need to be closely examined.

Hawa Noor M. is a researcher in the Governance Crime and Justice (GCJ) Division at the Institute for Security Studies in Nairobi. She can be reached at: and


[1] See

[2] Source:

[4] (Accessed on 19th January 2014)






[10] (Accessed on 20th January 2014)





2 Responses to “Kenya’s bid to regulate religious institutions”

  1. Haira Wilson

    New rules on registration of new churches shouldbe maintained but AG please consider lifting ban on registration of new churches. It is anti Christ to oppres growth of churches and Christian movements in a country. It will attract God’s anger. Faulty leaders to be dealt with as individuals

  2. Raphael G. Wahome

    I think this was a fair review of the proposed regulations and the challenges it is likely to face during implementation. Probably the writer could have pointed out that attempts at regulating religious institutions and personal beliefs and conscience in the communist world did not work. It only produced unnecessary pain on those who believed in God and excessive brutality on individuals belonging to the state organs. Many of the wounds caused during the over 70 years of brutalization are yet to heal.

    I see similar or greater persecution for those who hold onto their freedom to believe and worship God in line with their faith. I see a steep rise in corruption and extortion on part of the police and those with political connections. I see retardation of thought development (this always results when religious freedom is suppressed). That is why the communist world was left behind during the rapid modernization of the western world. I also see retardation of national development.

    Oh! If only the government had thought to tighten rules and regulations to curb corruption in the low and high places! As for now I only see pain ahead for Kenyans.


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