Somali Al Shabaab rebels have offered a reward to anyone who kills the Rev. Mahad H. Birik, and after a video of him describing his conversion from Islam seeped into major Somali broadcast, Web and print media two months ago, the pastor of an undisclosed church on the outskirts of Nairobi said longstanding threats on his life became concrete this month.
“My family is now living in a sleepless state,” said the father of two children – one age 15 from a wife who was taken from him when he left Islam, and a 2-year-old from remarriage. “My life and that of my family is in imminent danger. It is very serious and real, as Muslim extremists are strategizing on having my head.”
On Sunday (Dec. 14) Somali men unknown to him followed Birik and his wife to their church. A security guard stopped the men, asking them who they were and what they wanted, and they left. Birik said police identified their car as registered to Kamau Kamotho, whom officers have long sought on suspicion of being a hit-man for hire.
After several masked men hovered near his house one night early this year, he relocated his family to another area of Nairobi. On Dec. 4, masked men showed up at about 7:30 a.m. at their new residence, located in a compound where around two dozen other families live. They arrived in a car with tinted windows, he said.
“One of them came out of the car and started asking whether a Somali pastor was still inside the compound,” Birik said. “The watchman became suspicion as it was very early in the morning. He was able to see through the lowered window, where the driver of the car came out from, and saw two masked men, and then he raised an alarm by whistling.”
A second person got out of the car, and the watchman retreated backwards, he said; residents rushed to the scene, and the suspicious figures got back into the car and drove away.
Al Shabaab, an Islamic extremist insurgent group in Somalia, announced through Kenyan and Somali media and over mosque loudspeakers in 2009 that they would pay a large sum of money for Birik’s head, he said.
“The Al Shabaab have a sophisticated network,” said Birik, who also works for a relief agency. “I do not know when they will hit me; I am sure I can no longer hide myself. I therefore want the Christian world as well as human rights groups to know that my life is in danger, and I need urgent rescue.”
Video of Birik’s testimony had circulated on the Web prior to the latest version, which was recorded by a U.S. church volunteer this year and posted on the church website; the church had partnered in Nairobi with a foreign-based ministry to help produce audio recordings of the Bible in the Somali language. Telling the church volunteer his testimony was already available online, Birik had granted the church permission to disseminate the recording of his conversion story, a source said.
Birik said many in the underground network of Somali Christians in Kenya have sent him text messages saying his life is in danger and to be careful of his movements; “You are not safe at all,” one read.
On Dec. 8, a vehicle hit him and sent him caroming into a ditch, but he sustained only minor injuries. Birik said police later located the car, but the owner said it had been on a road test and the driver had not deliberately hit him.
At the end of November, Birik reported to police that Al Shabaab planned to execute him.
“I now have to put on a cap to hide my identity,” Birik said.
On Dec. 7, two Somali women that Birik believes were connected to Al Shabaab began following him. He told Morning Star News that one of them said in the Somali language, “This man is now an enemy of Islam. He used to be an imam. We should finish him off.”
Birik responded, “I am a Somali man; I have heard what you have said. You cannot harm me. Go back,” and immediately they began to run away, one of them falling down and another slipping into mud, he said. Coincidentally, police in the predominantly Somali area of Eastleigh in Nairobi on Dec. 12 arrested eight Somali women on suspicion of being agents of Al Shabaab.
On Dec.1, after two of Birik’s Somali relatives argued with him over his conversion to Christianity, one of them said, “I wish I could get an opportunity to kill this infidel – just hit him right in his face,” and the ensuing fight between the relative and the pastor resulted in police seeking to arrest them. Officers granted their request to settle the matter outside court, but later the case was registered at Administrative Police Camp at Dagoreti Corner.
The other relative, more sympathetic to Birik, told him that he needs to be careful and to watch his movements, Birik said.
Birik is not a stranger to persecution. Raised in northern Kenya to parents from Somalia, the neighboring country where leaving Islam is punishable by death, upon conversion his family disowned him and took all his property. They also took his wife from him and married her off to another man; the divorce became final in 2004.
“This was a big loss to me, and it took several years for me to recover,” he said.
In 2008 Somali Muslims beat him outside Nairobi for leaving Islam, breaking both his hands, he said, and in 2009 another Islamist gang confronted him and broke his right hand.
“They hit me with blunt objects, with several kicks and blows, and my hand got broken,” he said. “Now it is difficult to use it in doing heavy tasks.”
Birik said he is also in danger of losing his job with a relief organization.
“My employer is considering dismissing me, because my profile, which has been aired in all the Somali televisions and daily papers, will put their operation and lives of visiting staff in danger,” he said. “This organization has had bad experiences in the past, and it will not take chances once again.”
Since the Al Shabaab offer of a bounty to kill him, he has not been able to return to his home town of Wajir in northern Kenya, Birik said. He said the denomination that ordained him has not been responsive, and that he does not have the estimated $1,500 needed to relocate his family to another part of Kenya.
“I am sure if I am not rescued soon, then they will get rid of me,” he said. “It only a matter of when.”