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, 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.”
“This is how it was,” Bishop Alessandro told me. “And they celebrated Easter and participated very actively in the Mass, singing and dancing in the African style.”
Both he and Garissa’s bishop, fellow Maltese Capuchin Paul Darmanin, are the only two white people in the town in a region where two similar, but smaller, atrocities took place last year.
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.
“We are always somewhat concerned about security, also when we have functions,” Bishop Alessandro said. “We try to bring security on to the compound, police or military men.” He said the liturgies are also brought forward, so that the faithful can return home in daylight.
Their courage is admired by their brother bishops. The two Europeans are a “moving target” and “stand out like a sore thumb”, said Bishop Anthony Muheria of Kitui. “You really have to make a decision for heroism, for martyrdom, to live there.”
Many reasons are given for the rise of Islamist violence in Kenya, most of them political. The primary cause is al-Shabaab’s wish to avenge the Kenyan government for sending troops to join an African Union army fighting Islamist militants in Somalia.
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.”
This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (8/5/15).
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