Local News

Thousands Go To Mass for U.S. Priest

Posted August 30, 2000 7:00 a.m. EDT

— Braving a damp, chilly night in Kenya's western highlands, thousands of faithful crowded around an overflowing mission chapel early Thursday in an all-night vigil marking the death of a beloved American priest.

Encased in a teak and brass coffin with a glass lid, the Rev. John Kaiser, a native of Minnesota, appeared to be slumbering as hundreds danced and sang through a memorial Mass in a partially completed church.

Kaiser, 67, a vocal critic of Kenya's human rights record, was found dead last week along a highway near Naivasha, 50 miles northwest of Nairobi. He had been shot in the back of the head.

Many politicians and human rights activists have called his death a political assassination.

``Father Kaiser always loved the truth,'' said Bishop Joseph Mairura, who studied under Kaiser in seminary. ``Because he witnessed the truth, and some powerful people feared the truth, he was killed. Instead of repenting, they killed him.''

Four FBI agents are working with Kenyan police to investigate the case.

Kaiser had worked in Kenya for 36 years. When he first arrived in Nyangusu in 1976, there was no church or school in the village of several thousand people. Kaiser built the first church, and later a school. The congregation has since grown large enough to need a new chapel and many sat on the scaffolding or in the unfinished windows to catch a glimpse of him.

Inside the round concrete structure, nestled in the green foothills overlooking the Serengeti plain, children had tied colored yarn to lengths of twine as decoration.

``This is Father Kaiser's land,'' one boy said.

Even though Kaiser left Nyangusu 14 years ago, about 5,000 people chanted his name as the convoy bearing his body arrived and hundreds slept on the grass during the vigil.

On Wednesday, thousands of Kenyans, including legislators and human rights activists, paid their respects at Nairobi's Holy Family Basilica. Speakers at the Mass proclaimed Kaiser a martyr and a beacon for the oppressed and suffering.

Before and after the ceremony, members of the Kenya Human Rights Network and students demonstrated outside the cathedral, chanting and singing freedom songs. They carried banners saying, ``Killers of Father Kaiser are assassins of truth and liberty.''

``This was a political assassination. It was not just a simple murder,'' said Eusebio Wanyama, one of the demonstration's coordinators.

Local media reports said documents found on Kaiser's body linked two unidentified Kenyan cabinet ministers to violent tribal clashes. Kaiser intended to give the documents to a government commission looking into the clashes, which took place in the Rift Valley Province between 1992 and 1997, the reports said.

In the packed cathedral Wednesday, letters of condolence were read from Pope John Paul II and U.S. Ambassador Johnnie Carson.

Carson, who was unable to attend, promised in his letter that the U.S. government and embassy would do everything to ensure that those who ``perpetrated this terrible crime'' would be caught and prosecuted.