In Kenya camp at Christmas, refugees see Jesus as one of them

In the Dadaab refugee complex in northern Kenya, the concept of Jesus as a refugee is gaining relevance, as Christians and refugee churches celebrated Christmas. 

In the settlement, Pastor Ancent Muisyo of the Dadaab International Worship Center said church leaders were encouraging refugees from conflict and famine in the Horn of Africa to be hopeful, even as the government on 21 December issued a security alert for churches across the country. The center brings together members from 50 Christian denominations, including Anglicans, Presbyterians and Baptists. 

"The people in Dadaab need to hear words of hope at this time, because they have fled war and insecurity. Their experiences are similar to the flight of baby Jesus into exile over fears of persecution," said Muisyo, who remained in the camp to minister to aid workers and refugee churches. "As we celebrate, we will be encouraging them that God has not forgotten them and a time of restoration is coming." 

Christmas carols have resonated in churches, shops and entertainment places across the country, but in Dadaab they will be sung in church or played in houses, following concerns they may anger Muslims who form the majority of the 500,000 residents. 

Christians there have faced new threats following the start of Kenya military operation in southern Somalia. Kenya said the operation which started in November is made to flush out al-Shabab, a radical Somali Islamic group it accuses of abducting its nationals, aid workers and tourists. 

Soon after its launch, grenades were thrown into a church in the town of Garissa, about 100 kilometres from Dadaab. Several policemen have died in grenade explosions at the camp. 

Muisyo termed the attacks as new developments in the camp, but expressed optimism that Christians will not become targets at this season. 

"We are saying to the Muslims (at the camp) that we come in peace," he said adding that church leaders were advising their followers to maintain positive attitudes towards Muslims, since the two faiths shared many similarities in their understanding of God. 

In past, members of the two faiths have quietly exchanged gifts during religious celebrations, according to a church source, who asked not to be named. Popular gifts have been a goat, sheep or chicken, which are slaughtered for the occasion. 

Pastor Joseph Gilo, who leads God Help Church, a refugees' church, said it was a "miracle" for them to see the day after surviving war and famine. The church has 500 members from the Somali community, according to Gilo. Its structure was recently expanded. 

"We will concentrate on passing the message of peace," said Gilo. "The situation is hard for them (refugees), but we will not be here if God did not protect us. We give thanks for that." 

Christian agencies are continuing to provide relief aid, but it is a Christmas with reduced operations because of insecurity, according to Moses Mukhwana, the Lutheran World Federation Dadaab project coordinator. He said many aid workers had left, but he would stay at the camp to provide emergency response.

Fredrick Nzwili

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