The 150 plus Kenyan students killed on Maundy Thursday are martyrs, the Archbishop of Canterbury said in his Easter Day sermon at Canterbury Cathedral. “They are witnesses, unwilling, unjustly, wickedly, and they are martyrs in both senses of the word,” the Most Rev. Justin Welby said.

In a pre-dawn attack on April 2, a gang of Islamic extremists killed security guards and attacked Moi University in the provincial town of Garissa in northwest Kenya. Somalia’s al-Shabab Islamic militants claimed responsibility. Among the dead were 13 Christian Union members gathered for a pre-dawn prayer meeting. One of the dead was found still on his knees.

Dr. Welby continued, “These martyrs too are caught up in the resurrection: their cruel deaths, the brutality of their persecution, their persecution is overcome by Christ himself at their side because they share his suffering, at their side because he rose from the dead. Because of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead the cruel are overcome, evil is defeated, martyrs conquer.”

A host of Christian leaders, including Pope Francis, have joined in expressing sorrow at the dreadful massacre. Archbishop Thabo Makgoba of Southern Africa tweeted, “Heartfelt condolences for those so cruelly murdered in Garissa. Why should Al Shabab kill not only our sons, but our defenceless daughters?”

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Perpetrators lined up students and asked them, “Are you Christian or Muslim?” Muslims were freed and Christians were executed — either shot or their heads were cut off. The number killed was the largest in Kenya since the Jihadist bombing of the American Embassy on August 7, 1998, which left 316 dead.

Gradually emerging are stories of extraordinary courage by survivors. Cynthia Cheroitich, 20, hid for 13 hours in a cupboard under a pile of clothes, slaking her thirst by taking sips from a bottle of body lotion. She said her faith helped her in the ordeal. “I was just praying to my God,” she said.

Salias Omosa, a 20-year-old education student, said the victims were awakened at gunpoint in the pre-dawn attack. Muslims and non-Muslims were picked out by how they were dressed. Omosa recounted the events as she was trembling with terror and sitting in the refuge of a military camp. Local Christian agencies were already at work offering post-traumatic counseling to families of the bereaved and surviving students.

Garissa is located about 115 kilometers (70 miles) from Kenya’s somewhat porous border with Somalia. Moi University was founded in 2011. Many of its students, mostly drawn from western Kenya, are Christians.  Locals believe the death toll greatly exceeds official numbers.

Al-Shabab, while it has links with al-Qaeda, is not simply a Jihadist movement. Its adherents nurse a nationalist dream of a Greater Somalia, encompassing parts of Kenya and Uganda as well as the independent territory of Somaliland. It has gained a following in Kenya, as well as Somalia, fuelled by claims of heavy-handedness by Kenyan security forces.  

The Kenyan air force has launched bombing raids on supposed al-Shabab bases in the Somali border regions, but many questions will need to be answered in the coming weeks. Why was Moi University so poorly guarded, even though locals had wind of a possible attack? Why were the security forces so slow to react?  One journalist on the scene tweeted, “Journos who drove the 365km to Garissa by car arrived before the special forces who came by air.”

John Martin in London

Photo: Moi University/Facebook

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