The constitution stipulates there shall be no state religion and prohibits religious discrimination. The constitution provides for freedom of religion and belief individually or in communities, including the freedom to manifest any religion through worship, practice, teaching, or observance, and to debate religious questions. The constitution also states individuals shall not be compelled to act or engage in any act contrary to their belief or religion. These rights shall not be limited except by law, and then only to the extent that the limitation is “reasonable and justifiable in an open and democratic society.”
The constitution requires parliament to enact legislation recognizing a system of personal and family law adhered to by persons professing a particular religion. The constitution also specifically provides for qadi courts to adjudicate certain types of civil cases based on Islamic law, including questions relating to personal status, marriage, divorce, or inheritance in cases in which “all the parties profess the Muslim religion.” The secular High Court has jurisdiction over civil or criminal proceedings, including those in the qadi courts, and accepts appeals of any qadi court decision.
Although there is no penal law referring to blasphemy, a section of the penal code states that destroying, damaging, or defiling any place of worship or object held sacred with the intention of insulting the religion of any class of persons is a misdemeanor. This offense carries a penalty of a fine or up to two years in prison but is reportedly rarely prosecuted under this law. Crimes against the property of religious groups or places of worship are more likely to be treated as malicious destruction of property, which is also a misdemeanor.
According to the law, new religious groups, institutions or places of worship, and faith-based nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) must register with the Registrar of Societies, which reports to the Attorney General’s Office. Indigenous and traditional religious groups are not required to register, and many do not. To register, applicants must have valid national identification documents, pay a fee, and undergo security screening. Registered religious institutions and places of worship may apply for tax-exempt status, including exemption from duty on imported goods. The law also requires that organizations dedicated to advocacy, public benefit, the promotion of charity, or research register with the NGO Coordination Board.
All public schools have religious education classes taught by government-funded teachers. These classes focus on either Christian, Muslim, or Hindu teachings, and on the basic content of the religious texts of the religion being taught as well as ethics. The Ministry of Education allows local communities and schools to decide which course to offer. The course selected usually depends on the dominant local religion and the sponsor of the school, which is often a religious group. The national curriculum mandates religious classes for primary school students, and students may not opt out. Some public schools offer religious education options, usually Christian or Islamic studies, but are not required to offer more than one.
The law establishes fees for multiple steps in the marriage process that apply to all marriages, religious or secular. All officiants are required to purchase an annual license, and all public marriage venues must be registered. Officiants must be appointed by a registered religious group to conduct marriages in order to purchase the license.
The Ministry of Information, Communications, and Technology must approve regional radio and television broadcast licenses, including for religious organizations.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Human rights groups and prominent Muslim leaders and religious organizations continued to state the government’s antiterrorism activities disproportionately affected Muslims, especially ethnic Somalis and particularly in areas along the Somalia border. According to these groups, the government’s actions reportedly included extrajudicial killing, torture, forced interrogation, arbitrary arrest, detention without trial, enforced disappearances, and denial of freedom of assembly and worship. The government denied directing such actions.
In December, the executive director for HAKI Africa, a human rights NGO that works extensively in Muslim communities in the coastal region and Nairobi, called on authorities to investigate cases of enforced disappearances, noting four Muslim individuals had disappeared within a week and were allegedly last seen in the custody of security authorities. One of these persons, 17-year-old Ramadhan Bakari, was later found dead in a city morgue. The family of another of these persons, Seif Omar Abdalla, said individuals armed with guns and grenades raided their home, beat Seif, and took him and two other men away.
In a July study conducted in three counties, the Institute for Security Studies and HAKI Africa reported Muslim respondents cited police brutality, extrajudicial killings, and religious profiling as drivers of tensions and mistrust between communities and security forces. Some respondents said authorities treated them as suspects when they tried to provide information on violent extremism and mistreated, harassed, or arrested them.
The government took steps, described by human rights organizations as limited and uneven, to address cases of alleged abuses by security force members. The governmental Independent Policing Oversight Authority (IPOA), established to provide civilian oversight of the work of police, continued to refer cases of police misconduct to the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions for prosecution. Public prosecutors, however, experienced delays in moving cases to trial and conviction. IPOA investigations led to two convictions of police officers during the year. In one case, IPOA reported that in March, the High Court sentenced a police officer to 20 years in prison for the 2014 attempted murder of a student in Garissa County, an area with a predominately Muslim population. The Muslim student was shot twice by a non-Muslim police officer, who then stole his cell phone.
In August, armed men reportedly abducted two Muslim clerics and a caretaker from a madrassa in Kilifi County. Rights activists and relatives said it was the police who abducted them. The three men were missing for almost two weeks before they returned home. Police officials denied involvement and were reportedly investigating the matter.
The Registrar of Societies continued not to register any new religious organizations pending completion of revised Religious Societies Rules, which had not been finalized at year’s end, and thousands of religious group applications reportedly remained pending. The government has not registered any new religious organizations since 2014. Some religious leaders called on the government to resume registrations, stating the suspension interfered with the freedom of worship, including by making it more difficult to purchase property and conduct operations.
In January, a public secondary school in Kericho County suspended 17 Seventh-day Adventist students for refusing to take exams on a Saturday, the Church’s Sabbath, according to media reports. The school permitted the students to return after several days following advocacy by the families and the Atheists in Kenya Society, a registered society group.
In May, the government implemented a month-long cessation-of-movement order into and out of Nairobi’s Eastleigh neighborhood and Mombasa’s Old Town, both areas predominately inhabited by Muslims, following an increase in COVID-19 cases. Some residents and Muslim human rights groups said the lockdowns were discriminatory, stating the government had not ordered such measures in neighborhoods predominately inhabited by non-Muslims. The government publicly denied targeting Muslims. Other Muslim leaders, including representatives of the Supreme Council of Kenyan Muslims, expressed support for the government’s efforts to protect public health and said the government applied measures fairly across faith communities.
In June, the government appointed an Inter-faith Council on the National Response to the Coronavirus Pandemic to develop guidelines for the phased reopening of places of worship, which were closed in late March to stem the spread of COVID-19, and the holding of religious ceremonies. Council members and religious leaders familiar with the council’s work said government officials largely adopted the council’s recommendations, and the government permitted places of worship to resume in-person services in July with public health measures in place. Religious leaders reported local officials at times attempted to harass religious groups for allegedly failing to follow COVID-19 guidelines but said national government officials intervened to help resolve these issues. According to media, some religious leaders said there was a bias against places of worship compared to businesses when it came to reopening, noting the government allowed restaurants that met specific health requirements to reopen prior to places of worship. Many religious leaders criticized politicians for holding political gatherings that did not adhere to the government’s restrictions on public gatherings. The government convened national interfaith prayer services in March and October to address the pandemic.
Muslim leaders continued to state that police often linked the whole Muslim community to al-Shabaab. In a survey conducted in six counties in late 2019, Muslim respondents said they believed authorities unfairly targeted them for security checks, making it difficult for them to move freely and conduct business. IPOA and human rights organizations reported numerous complaints from predominantly Muslim communities, particularly in the Eastleigh neighborhood of Nairobi and coastal regions, regarding intimidation, arbitrary arrest, and extortion by police. Some complainants stated police accused them of being members of al-Shabaab. Some predominately Muslim ethnic groups, including Kenyan Somalis and Nubians, reported difficulties obtaining government identification cards. These communities stated government officials at times requested supporting documents not required by law and implemented vetting processes in a biased manner. In October, the Nubian Rights Forum and other human rights groups criticized the government for not taking sufficient steps to ensure minority religious and ethnic groups would be able to register for the new national digital identification card that were scheduled to be required to access all government services.