Bishop Joseph Alessandro is short in stature, meek and softly spoken. But don’t be misled by appearances: he is a courageous man serving Christ and the Church in what has become one of the most dangerous regions for Christians in East Africa.
On Holy Thursday (of 2015), militants stormed Garissa University College near his cathedral and shot dead at least 150 people, injuring 79 others. The victims, mostly students from other parts of Kenya, were singled out for being Christian and then killed.
“It started early in the morning,” Bishop Alessandro, co-adjutor bishop of Garissa diocese, told me at a guesthouse in Rome. “We could hear every gunshot from our house, because it’s not even one kilometre away, so it’s very close.”
A Maltese Capuchin missionary friar, Bishop Alessandro is no stranger to gun violence in the country. In 1993, he was a passenger on a bus held up by shiftas (outlaws) in Kenya who shot him in the hip. That cut short his missionary stay in the country. But after serving as Malta’s Capuchin superior general, he returned to Kenya in 2010 when he was appointed general vicar in Garissa. Benedict XVI appointed him co-adjutor in 2012.
In Rome for the ad limina visit of Kenya’s bishops, he serenely recalled the horrific atrocity on the first day of the Easter Triduum.
“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,” he told me.
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,” said the bishop, who baptised 28 infants and children at the Mass. He called it a “show of witness” that displayed “the faith of our Catholics”. He also saw it as an evangelising moment in the presence of much international media who stayed for the whole Mass.
In his homily, the Maltese bishop said he tried to encourage his flock, telling them 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.”
But he comforted them by reminding them of the Resurrection. The 150 victims suffered “a martyrdom of blood”, he told the parishioners, adding: “We have new ones who are being baptised by the baptism of water and the Spirit.”
In November al-Shabaab, which is loosely connected to al-Qaeda, ambushed a bus near Garissa, separated Christians from Muslims and shot dead the 28 Christians. On December 2, the same group attacked workers at a stone quarry in the area, again singling out Christian workers from Muslim ones, and killed 36 of them.
Kenya’s bishops are deeply alarmed by the spread of the violence in a democratic country that is largely peaceful. They also resent the silent international response, especially the omission of the fact that Christians are victims, and they believe the lack of condemnation among many Muslim leaders is part of an effort to make Africa Muslim.
But they are determined to help defuse tensions, chiefly by preaching forgiveness, pursuing dialogue with Muslim and Christian partners, and through prayer. And although he is grateful for the security, Bishop Alessandro would like to see improved information-sharing between the security services.
“We have to pray for peace in Kenya, especially in our area,” he said quietly. “We have to pray for the victims’ relatives and also the perpetrators, that they might have a change of heart.”
The genocidal oppression of Christians by the Islamist group ISIS/ISIL/IS is barely acknowledged by Western media and politicians. How many more tens of thousands of murdered Christians will it take before the West calls what is going on in the Middle East by its true name? How many more millions of Christians will be displaced and have their businesses and properties taken from them, and of the few who do remain behind, how many will refuse to pay the jizya tax as inferior citizens and be subjugated by or killed according to ISIS interpretation of sharia law? If the actions of ISIS are not genocide, it is difficult to imagine what qualifies as such in this day and age.
The traditional homeland of Iraqi Christians, the Nineveh Plains, has been purged of Christians, and the West has done little but indulge muslim economic refugees fleeing to Europe. Many people of goodwill are asking and not receiving any credible answer as to why Christian and Yezidi refugees, i.e., those most oppressed and who are most at risk and who have had to flee death and destruction precisely because they are religious minorities suffering double the oppression—because they are non-muslims fleeing oppression by muslim extremists and because they have had their livelihoods stolen from them—have not been moved to the front of the refugee queue?
If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you; if they kept my word, they will keep yours also. But all this they will do to you on my account, because they do not know him who sent me. If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not have sin; but now they have no excuse for their sin. He who hates me hates my Father also. If I had not done among them the works which no one else did, they would not have sin; but now they have seen and hated both me and my Father. It is to fulfil the word that is written in their law, ‘They hated me without a cause.’ But when the Counselor comes, whom I shall send to you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness to me; and you also are witnesses, because you have been with me from the beginning.—St. John 15:18-27