Kenyan Bishop on the Holy Thursday Massacre: ‘We Could Hear Every Gunshot’

Co-adjutor Bishop Joseph Alessandro of Garissa recounts the April 2 tragedy that left 150 Christian students dead at the hands of Islamic militants.

Bishop Joseph Alessandro baptizes children during Easter Mass at Our Lady of Consolation Church in Garissa, Kenya.
Bishop Joseph Alessandro baptizes children during Easter Mass at Our Lady of Consolation Church in Garissa, Kenya. (photo: AP photo/Ben Curtis)

ROME — “It started early in the morning,” recalled Bishop Joseph Alessandro, co-adjutor of Garissa in northern Kenya. “We could hear every gunshot from our house because it’s not even one kilometer away, so it’s very close.”

Bishop Alessandro, a Maltese Capuchin missionary friar, was recounting the deadly attack at Garissa University College on Holy Thursday, when Al-Shabaab Islamist militants shot dead at least 150 people and injured 79 more. The victims, mostly students from other parts of Kenya, were singled out for being Christian and then killed.

“There was a lot of movement of police and military men, but we didn’t know exactly what was happening inside, because they surrounded the campus of the university so no one could go near,” Bishop Alessandro, 70, told the Register in Rome on April 17. He and his brother bishops were on their ad limina visit to the Vatican -- the requirement that each bishop must report to the pope on the status of his diocese every five years.

He and other priests were also prevented from visiting the injured in the hospital the next day, and the Triduum liturgies were disrupted. But on Easter Sunday, despite the possibility of further attacks, Garissa’s cathedral was full. “This was something of a surprise for me,” the bishop said, who baptized 28 infants and children at the Mass. He called it a “show of witness” and an evangelizing moment in the presence of much international media.

In his homily, the bishop said he “tried to encourage them,” telling his flock they were “celebrating the paschal mystery in a different way, a more concrete way.” He said he told the local faithful, “If before you used to celebrate the passion and death of Jesus, this year we are going through the Passion, experiencing the death of so many young people, female and male.”


Comforting Beleaguered Kenyans

But he comforted them, by saying that on the third day “Jesus rose to raise us up, so even if we lost some of our members who used to come to the cathedral for Sunday Mass, we believe they are already risen with the Lord. And even if they suffered a martyrdom of blood, we have new ones who are being baptized by the baptism of water and the Spirit.”

“This is how it was,” Bishop Alessandro said. “And they celebrated Easter and participated very actively in the Mass, singing and dancing in the Kenyan way.”

The April 2 attack was the third such atrocity committed by such militants in the area over the past five months.

Last November, Al-Shabaab, which is loosely connected to al-Qaida, ambushed a bus near Garissa, separated Christians from Muslims and shot dead 28 Christians. On Dec. 2, the same group attacked workers at a stone quarry in the area, again singling out Christian workers from Muslims ones, and killed 36 of them.

Tara McKinney, an international project officer for Cross Catholic Outreach, a Catholic non-governmental organization, spoke of the “shock and grief” among the local population “combined with increasing anxiety over what may happen next; where, when and to whom?”

She said there have been more than 100 Islamist attacks in Kenya in recent months, but they have been significantly smaller. “The magnitude and escalation of this incident has caused an outcry for God’s protection and sadness over the loss in Garissa — wherever one is in the country,” she told the Register April 20.


Alarming Rise of Fundamentalism

On their ad limina visit to Rome in mid-April, Kenya’s bishops shared their deep concerns about the attack, the “alarming rise” of Islamic fundamentalism in the East-African country and an urgent need to defuse the hostilities.

During a two-hour meeting, the bishops informed Pope Francis that what, at first, seemed to be a “very contained” and local attack is “wider than meets the eye,” according to Bishop Anthony Muheria of Kitui.

Speaking to reporters in Rome April 20, he said all but one of the Garissa university attackers were homegrown and trained in Somalia (its ringleader Ahmed Omar was well-educated and had studied law at Nairobi University). Some have also been radicalized in local refugee camps near the border with Somalia or at mosques in major Kenyan cities, such as Mombasa.

“In a sense, this is a very bad fact, because you don’t know who your enemies are,” Bishop Muheria said. “They’re not foreigners.”

The authorities are considering erecting a 200-kilometer security wall along the Kenya-Somalia border, but many are opposed to the idea, given that most of the militants are already in Kenya. The bishops have, instead, appealed to and sought meetings with Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta to boost security, especially for Christians. “We’re being a little aggressive on the leadership because it can’t be business as usual,” Bishop Muheria said. “We’re also hoping to bring Muslims into it.”

Bishop Alessandro, who was once shot in the hip by shiftas (outlaws) in rural Kenya in the 1990s, would like to see improved intelligence, as some attacks “could have been prevented” if there had been better “information sharing” among security services.

But the bishops also spoke about another major concern: the “deafening silence” in the international media for two days, which they contrasted with the global outcry over the Charlie Hebdo Islamist attack in Paris earlier this year.

“Are lives not worth the same?” Bishop Muheria asked. Unlike the aftermath of that attack, he said Kenya “had no solidarity visit from any leader in the world,” nor was there any condemnation for the Islamists directly targeting Christians. President Barack Obama’s official statement on the atrocity omitted any reference to the terrorists’ targeting of Christian students. “Our institutions are not defending Christians,” the bishop said.

Pope Francis shared the bishops’ concerns, Bishop Muheria noted, adding that he showed the “greatest solidarity” of any world leader, and in their private meeting, he “really supported” the bishops in calling on international leaders to speak up in defense of persecuted Christians. He was “extremely encouraging,” the Kitui bishop said.

Two local imams condemned the university attack, Bishop Alessandro said, and added that Christian-Muslim relations are normally good. But the bishops have noticed that the condemnations of Islamist violence are usually weak or absent. “Our reading is they’re fulfilling a bigger agenda, which is to make Africa Muslim,” Bishop Muheria said. “That is something we must speak out about. It’s not disconnected.”


Underlying Reasons

Many reasons are attributed to the rise of Islamist violence in Kenya, most of them political. Al-Shabaab says it is avenging the Kenyan government for sending troops to join an African Union army fighting Islamist militants in Somalia, where the militants have lost the key positions of Mogadishu and Kismayo and, with them, important sources of income. But despite their loss of mostly black-market revenue, Al-Shabaab continues to be well-resourced, having received ransoms worth millions of dollars when they hijacked ships off the Somalian coast.

Another reason for the violence is that Al-Shabaab also wishes to reclaim Garissa and some of the northern regions of Kenya that formerly belonged to Somalia. The attacks are a bid to “scare away” Kenyans so this can be accomplished, according to Bishop Alessandro. Then there is the militants’ wish to impose Islam by force.

The Church’s priority now is to try to defuse the attacks by calling on Kenyans to forgive the perpetrators as well as call on political and social leaders for practical help. “Pope Francis encouraged us along these lines,” Bishop Muheria said. “We have to control vengeance or it can escalate.”

McKinney said Cross Catholic Outreach is working with partners on the ground to foster peace and religious harmony in schools and local communities. On a larger scale, she noted how Cardinal John Njue of Nairobi, when meeting with family members, prayed for forgiveness.

“It was an extremely positive example for a Church leader to focus on forgiveness at such a time, especially when the comments being aired in social media had the opposite tone,” she said. “The Church continues to be a sign and a witness of God’s love and of the role of forgiveness we should all give to one another.”

In his ad limina address to Kenya’s bishops on April 16, Pope Francis urged the Church in Kenya to “always be true to her mission as an instrument of reconciliation, justice and peace” and to strengthen dialogue with other Christian and non-Christian leaders.

Bishop Muheria said prayers of solidarity are “very important — we really need that prayer.” And although the bishop noted the lack of international solidarity among world leaders, he said they appreciate the acts of solidarity already shown by others.

“We have to pray for peace in Kenya, especially in our area,” said Bishop Alessandro. “We have to pray for the victims’ relatives and also the perpetrators, that they might have a change of heart.”

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.

Pope Francis attends the awarding of the Ratzinger Prize at the Vatican on Dec. 6.

The Latest in Vatican News (Dec. 10)

As pilgrims make their way to Rome for Advent and the Christmas season, important Vatican news continues, including the crisis of the German Synodal Path, the Synod on Synodality and the on-going trial of Cardinal Angelo Becciu. This week on Register Radio, we are joined by the Register’s Rome correspondent, Edward Pentin, with the latest on these stories and more.