SANTA ANA, Calif. At least 18 people died while 66 were wounded in Kenya's northeastern town of Garissa Sunday (July 1) when assailants burst into the Africa Inland Church (AIC) and Catholic Church, shooting at worshipers with firearms and detonating grenades. Two policemen guarding the AIC churches were among those killed. Four of the injured are in critical condition in Nairobi hospitals.
Details are still emerging, but eyewitnesses told Open Doors in telephone interviews that the attackers approached the AIC church, shot the two policemen guarding the church at point blank range, took their guns and started shooting at worshippers. As the churchgoers realized what was going on, they tried to flee. Many were shot dead as they attempted to escape.
The attackers threw at least four grenades into the church. Two detonated while two were found intact.
At the Catholic Church the attackers apparently jumped over a fence and started shooting at people standing near the church. Three church members were killed before the attackers fled.
"These brazen attacks on innocent Christian worshippers are horrific," said Open Doors USA President/CEO Carl Moeller. "The area near the border of Somalia and Kenya is becoming a killing field as well as a place where many aid workers are being kidnapped. While attacks on churches in Nigeria have held our attention over the last few months, attacks on Christians have increased in the Somalia/Kenya border area. Please pray for the families of the victims."
Eyewitnesses were shocked by the attacks.
"We heard something like stones being thrown on top of the roof. Then we realized that we were being shot at," said Dennis Nzioki, who was attending the AIC worship service at the time of the attack.
Police said they have identified suspects in the attacks.
"No arrests have been made but we have reports that five suspects were involved in the AIC attack while two suspects were involved in the Catholic Church attack," said Deputy Regional Police Chief Philip Ndolo.
There is speculation about the attackers being linked to the Somali rebel militant group al-Shabaab. Kenya has suffered a number of abductions and gun, grenade and bomb attacks since October 2011 when the government sent troops into southern Somalia to target al-Shabaab, which is fighting its UN-backed government. The atmosphere in areas close to the Somalia border, such as Garissa, has been particularly tense. However, some observers suspect that radical Islamists are using the tense atmosphere in these regions to rid Christian presence in these Somali-dominated border regions.
Chairman Abdulghafur El-Busaidy of the Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims condemned Sunday's church attacks: "All places of worship must be respected. We want to send our condolences, and we are sad that no arrests have been made yet."
Kenyan Vice President Kalonzo Musyoka also condemned the attacks. "Places of worship should be respected," he said.
Open Doors USA is planning to visit the churches in the next few days to encourage believers and to determine the need for further support.