NAIROBI, Kenya Gunmen entered a Sunday morning worship service in Kenya's coastal Mombasa County yesterday and sprayed the congregation with bullets, killing at least seven Christians and leaving several others in critical condition.
Two heavily-armed men wounded more than a dozen of the 200-member Joy in Jesus Church in the Likoni area of Mombasa, where a mosque said to have ties with the Somali Islamic extremist group Al Shabaab has caused tensions.
Among the dead was assistant pastor Phillip Musasa, sources told Morning Star News.
"The pastor had a head injury and succumbed to the injury while being rushed to the hospital," said a pastor who visited victims today at Coast General Hospital, also known as Makandara Hospital. "I saw 10 of the survivors in the hospital, and they are in a critical state."
Another pastor, also speaking anonymously due to security threats in the area, said hospitalized church members were in great pain.
"Most of the victims need blood," he said.
No one has taken responsibility for the attack, which reportedly involved a third gunman outside the church building shooting at Christians fleeing the attack. Church leaders suspected Islamic extremists had carried it out in reprisal for a raid by armed police on the Masjid Musa Mosque (now Masjid Shuhada, or "Martyrs Mosque") on Feb. 2, in which more than 100 Muslims were arrested and at least two killed; most of those detained have been released.
"We as the church feel that what happened is a retaliation for the attack that took place in Masjid Musa Mosque recently," said one church leader. "When the Muslims are attacked, there is a false generalization that the Christians are the ones doing it. We as the church became a scapegoat for the recent attack on the mosque."
Authorities believe the mosque has been used as a recruitment center for Al Shabaab, an Al Qaeda-affiliated militia waging war in neighboring Somalia. Two months ago authorities issued a warning of possible major attacks in the area and arrested two suspects found with powerful explosives last week. Police reportedly suspected Al Shabaab militants for the Joy in Jesus Church attack.
A pastor who requested anonymity said he suspected Al Shabaab sympathizers.
"We suspect this is a group of radical Muslim youth who support the Al Shabaab militia that is gaining root here in Mombasa," he said.
Another pastor said the assault was "a planned attack aimed at creating fear in church members, which in turn will weaken the presence of the church in the coastal region of Kenya."
Authorities have arrested scores of people for questioning but not the primary, unidentified suspects. After the shooting, the assailants tried to attack the nearby Redeemed Gospel Church, known as the Jesus Celebration Center, Christian leaders said.
"Fortunately, they could not get inside the church because they found armed police men manning the place," said one pastor. "As the attackers fled Joy in Jesus Church [also known as Joy in Christ Church], a box holding 26 bullets dropped outside the church."
Bishop Wilfred Lai, senior pastor of the Redeemed Gospel Church and chairman of the County Church Forum, said area Christians would not be deterred.
"We as the body of Christ in the coastal region of Kenya will stand firm in spite of the cruel act of terrorism," he said.
At about 5 p.m. on Sunday (March 23), government officials convened a meeting of security agents, Christian pastors and Islamic leaders to discuss maintaining peace in the coastal region of Kenya. Mombasa County Gov. Hassan Ali Joho urged religious leaders to preach peaceful co-existence and tolerance.
Two hardline sheikhs from the Musa mosque have been killed since 2012; with area Muslims suspecting police shot them. The mosque's sheikh Abubakar Sharrif, also known as Makaburi, interviewed about the Joy in Jesus Church attack by NTV's Dennis Ogari on Sunday night, said that Kenyan Christians are infidels, "therefore when sheikhs are killed, then we also will kill" Christians.
Suspected Islamic extremists likely killed Lawrence Kazungu Kadenge, 59, an assistant pastor at Glory of God Ministries Church, in the Majengo area of Mombasa on Feb. 2 for sharing his faith near the Musa mosque and alerting authorities to security threats, sources said. Some youths reportedly raised the black flag of Al Shabaab at the mosque that day, when the raid by authorities touched off riots.
On Oct. 19, 2013, suspected Islamic extremists in Mombasa killed pastor Charles "Patrick" Matole of Vikwantani Redeemed Gospel Church following riots associated with the same mosque. Matole had received death threats. The murder came a few weeks after rioting in Mombasa by Muslims enraged at the killing of sheikh Ibrahim Omar and three others on a road near Mombasa.
During the riots, Muslim youths from the Masjid Musa Mosque shouting "Allahu Akbar [God is Greater]" set fire to the Salvation Army Church building in the Majengo area. They accused police of killing the hardline Islamist sheikh, and in the police response to the rampaging Muslim youths, including officers' efforts to stop them from attacking a Pentecostal church in Mombasa, four people were reportedly killed and several others wounded.
Omar had been a student of sheikh Aboud Rogo, also mysteriously killed in his vehicle in August 2012, who had been accused of aiding in recruitment and funding for Al Shabaab. At the Musa mosque, some 200 meters from the Salvation Army Church building, Omar reportedly issued incendiary sermons against non-Muslims.
According to Kenya's National Intelligence Service, the imam had invited jihadists from Somalia to bomb targets in Nairobi and Mombasa in retaliation for the killing of Rogo. The same Salvation Army Church building was set ablaze in 2012 in response to the killing of Rogo.
Al Shabaab took responsibility for the assault on the Westgate Shopping Mall on Sept. 21, 2013, which killed at least 67 people with dozens still unaccounted for. The assailants killed those they could identify as non-Muslims. Al Shabaab has said attacks on Kenyan soil are in retaliation for Kenyan-led African Union forces retaking ground from the Islamic extremist group in its attempt to take over Somalia.
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