MOMBASA, Kenya -- On the Sunday morning after their church was attacked, forcing their pastor, his injured wife and their daughter to flee, a handful of the curious and devout shuffled through the ring of police outside, through the smoke-stained entrance and gingerly around shards of glass to take seats inside. Shock filled the hushed sanctuary.
The Salvation Army church had stood in Mombasa, Kenya’s second largest city, since before the country was declared independent in 1963. Regulars said they’d always maintained neighborly relations with the impoverished Muslims who lived around them. Now that world of harmony was as shattered as the windows lying around their feet.
"It was as if there was a war here. Stones were flying," recalled Herbert Kaduki, an elder of the church. "They were specifically targeting us."
What now? "We still don’t know," he replied despondently.
Kenya is no Nigeria, where Muslim-Christian antagonism dominates the nation’s politics and roils its hinterlands in fatal clashes every year. Kenya, with a booming economy and a strengthening democracy, is predominantly Christian and the relationship between that majority and the sizable Muslim minority has been mostly friendly.
But that veneer of tolerance was ripped open last week. At least five churches, including the Salvation Army one in the poor Muslim district of Majengo, were attacked during heavy rioting, local religious leaders say. Other churches have been attacked with grenades in separate incidents over the past year.
Behind the violence appears to be an extremist Islamist ideology that’s spreading among the disaffected Muslim communities on the coast and may be fueled by Kenya’s war in neighboring Somalia against the al Qaida affiliate there, al Shabab.
The attack on the Salvation Army church occurred Aug. 27, hours after a radical ideologue and preacher, Sheikh Aboud Rogo, was gunned down on the streets in broad daylight. Kenyan police say they don’t know who the assassins were, an explanation that Muslims here openly deride.
"The police killed him, of course," said Muhsin Swale, who worships at the Musa Mosque, where Rogo preached, just down the street from the Salvation Army.
Even after the police regained control of the streets, and the protests halted, the tensions remained. Four days later, after Friday prayers, Rogo supporters filed out of the Musa Mosque, shouting “Allahu Akbar” –“God is great” – at news cameras waiting outside. Police in riot gear appeared at the end of the street, next to the damaged Salvation Army church, and began to march in, menacingly. At first, the crowd stood its ground, defiantly, before dispersing.
"We are not fighting because we don’t have guns. Just imagine if we had guns," a stocky man with graying stubble said to a reporter before scurrying down an alleyway.
Kenyan authorities downplay the significance of the violence.
"It has nothing to do with religion. These are just thugs versus the law," said Samuel Kilele, the top official in Kenya’s Coast province. Kilele said there was no evidence that any Muslim leader had ordered the churches attacked.
Others hope that the violent response to Rogo’s death serves as a wake-up call for the government to take seriously what they say is a growing terrorism threat in Kenya.