Five Years after Terrorist Attack at Kenya’s Garissa University, Bishop Shares Progress

Bishop Joseph Alessandro, of Garissa Diocese, Kenya.
Credit: Aid to the Church in Need (ACN)

On the 5th anniversary of the  deadly attack on Kenya’s Garissa University College, situated in the north eastern part of the East African country, the Catholic Bishop of the area has recalled the unfortunate event and recounted initiatives that have undertaken by religious leaders to promote peaceful co-existence.

The April 3, 2015 attack involved some four militants from the Somalia-based Al-Qaeda offshoot, Al-Shabaab who stormed the university just before dawn, killing at least 147 people and injuring many others after being held hostage.

According to a media report, the masked attackers “singled out and shot those identified as Christians as they roamed from building to building.”

“If you were a Christian you were shot on the spot,” a student who survived the attack has been quoted as telling the Associated Press.

“We try to create a dialogue first of all with the local people,” the Bishop of Garissa Diocese, Joseph Alessandro told Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) International Monday, April 6, referencing initiatives religious leaders have taken since the 2015 attack aimed at fostering peaceful co-existence.

He explained, “We have a team made up of religious leaders – Muslims, Protestants, Catholics, Methodists and some others – and we meet regularly so that we try to create a bond amongst ourselves and if we foresee something that is not going right, we discuss it to prevent the situation worsening.”

The Muslims leaders, Bishop Alessandro said, “try to tell their people that the Christians are their brothers; although there are differences, we have to live together as brothers and sisters. I think we are trying to do our best.”

The member of the Order of Friars Minor Capuchin (OFM Cap.) added, “We try to keep our people calm. We have to go forward. These are extremists, not everyone is like that. So, we try, for our part, to educate our people to differentiate between the terrorists and those who are not terrorists, Muslims also.”

Observers described the attack as the deadliest in Kenya since the U.S. Embassy bombings in the capital city, Nairobi that took place in 1998, claiming at least 213 lives.

Most of those killed during the Garissa University attack were students, with a media report indicating that those who succumbed to gunshot wounds included three solders, three staff and 142 students.

“This event happened exactly five years ago; it was a very sad event. If I remember well, there were about 148 students who lost their lives. They were all Christians from various denominations,” Bishop Alessandro, a native of Malta told ACN’s Grace Attu during the April 6 interview.

He described the deadly attack as “a shock to the whole nation especially to the Church in Garissa because there were Catholics amongst them whom we knew used to come to our Church on Sundays. I used to go to the university campus to celebrate Mass and hear confessions. I admired them so much because they were very active.”

“Although we had that experience, we thank God that now things have returned almost to normal, even though there are still some sporadic attacks from these terrorist groups in our Diocese,” the 75-year-old Maltese Prelate said and recalled, “These last two months there have been about 16 of these incidents and attacks, about 60 people lost their lives because of these attacks.”

Kenya’s Garissa diocese neighbors Ethiopia on one side and Somalia on the other. Its close proximity to jihadist-dominated Somalia makes the area prone to sporadic terror attacks from the Al-Shabaab insurgents who take advantage of the porous borders to cross into Kenya and use the area as a hideout.

At 143,000 square kilometres, the diocese is the largest in Kenya “but the faithful are few in number because it’s a semi-desert,” Bishop Alessandro said, adding that his diocese is made up of seven parishes that are “very much scattered one from another.”

The area is predominantly Muslim, with Catholics accounting for 0.9 percent of the population.

“Catholics are very few as they mostly come from the up-country because of work; government employees, civil servants, teachers, nurses, doctors and a few business people,” the Prelate who was ordained Coadjutor Bishop of Garissa diocese in September 2012 said and added, “Even though they are very few, we still try to cater for them as much as we can.”

Referencing the few Catholics in the diocese, he further said, “Their faith is very strong, although they have challenges because it’s a predominantly Muslim environment. Sometimes when attacks happen, the victims are always up-country people who are Christians, not only Catholics, but also other Christians.”

“This could sometimes instill fear in them especially when we have feasts or big gatherings. We find help from the government, when we inform them about our activities, they provide us with security,” the Prelate said and added, “On Sundays during Masses there is also security so we try to create a safe environment for the faithful.”

Sharing about the pastoral activities he promotes in his diocese, Bishop Alessandro who has served in Kenya for 14 years said, “We try to provide catechesis and last year we had some couples who had their wedding blessed. It was a big event in the Diocese. We also prepare their children for baptism and confirmation and first Holy Communion.”

“Then we have what some people call social work; I prefer to call it charity work,” he concluded.

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