Clerics across Kenya gave sermons dedicated to peace the day before a national election that some fear could devolve into the same violence that engulfed the East African country after the disputed 2007 election.
Campaign rallies have ended, and many in this heavily Christian nation went to their parishes Sunday to pray that the Monday vote does not become too polarized along ethnic lines.
At the Nairobi Chapel, an evangelical church in the capital, three pastors took turns praising the attributes of some tribes, drawing cheers from the congregation. The Kikuyus were praised for being entrepreneurial, the Luos for valuing education, and the Kalenjins for their loyalty.
"Tomorrow we celebrate our cultural diversity as a nation," cleric Nick Korir said in his sermon Sunday. "A lot of things unite us as a church. A lot of things unite us as a country."
Uhuru Kenyatta, a Kikuyu who is the son of Kenya's founding president, and Raila Odinga, a Luo whose father was the country's first vice president, are the leading candidates for president. Recent polls showed Kenyatta and Odinga in a close race, with support for each candidate in the mid-40-percent range. Eight candidates are running for president just more than five years after a contested election degenerated into tribal violence that killed more than 1,000 people and displaced at least 600,000.
If no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote, a scenario some analysts say is likely, Kenyans will vote in a runoff contest between the top two candidates in April.
In the weeks leading up to Monday's vote, described by Odinga as the most consequential since independence in 1963, peace activists and clerics have been praying that this time the election is peaceful despite lingering tensions. Odinga has come to represent the political aspirations of his Luo tribe, which has never produced a president. His acrimonious loss to President Mwai Kibaki in 2007 triggered violence that only ended when the international community stepped in to mediate. Odinga has since been prime minister in a coalition government led by Kibaki, with Kenyatta holding the role of deputy prime minister.
On Saturday the candidates held their final rallies, which turned into a day of political attacks and denials following published comments attributed to the prime minister that election violence could be worse than in 2007-08 if the vote is rigged.
The Financial Times in a story Saturday quoted Odinga as saying he knows his opponents are planning to rig the vote and that "the consequences may be worse than last time round. The people will not stomach another rigging."
At his final campaign rally Kenyatta said Odinga's comments were unfortunate and accused his opponent of taking success for granted. Odinga later said the quotes were a fabrication.
On Sunday some Christian clerics asked their congregations to disappoint those who suspect there will be postelection violence. A cleric at a popular evangelical church in Nairobi called Mavuno predicted that the election would be free of any violence.
"We ask you to shame all prophets of doom," he told a packed congregation. "This is a country we are all proud of despite the divisions that people talk about. There is a Kenya after tomorrow."
A comedian regaled the audience with tales of what makes Kenyans "special" people, and then asked his audience to not just be peaceful but to "believe in peace."
Kenya's Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission, the body charged with administering the election, says everything is in place for the vote to proceed smoothly. Some 99,000 police officers will be on duty during an election in which at least 14 million people are expected to vote. Kenyans will also be electing new lawmakers, governors and other officials.