YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – Catholic bishops in Kenya have expressed disgust at the heavy-handed response of the police to anti-tax protesters that has resulted in several deaths.

The Kenyan parliament on Tuesday voted for the controversial 2024/25 Finance Bill that sparked nationwide protests.

The proposed law raises taxes on essential items like bread, vegetable oil, and sugar, raises an eco-levy that would apply to most manufactured goods (including items like sanitary towels and diapers), increases banking charges, and imposes higher annual charges on car owners.

The tax bill seeks to raise an additional $2.7 billion in taxes, in order to decrease the country’s budget deficit without incurring additional debts.

Kenya’s public debt stands at 68 percent of GDP, higher than the 55 percent of GDP recommended by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

The East African country’s effort to get additional funding from the IMF was turned down. The financial institution required that Kenya either bring down its mountain of debt or introduce austerity measures. The country’s authorities opted for the latter by increasing taxes on the general population.

The tax increases prompted country-wide protests, especially led by youths already suffering from financial constraints.

They were calling on the government of President William Ruto to not implement the tax hikes, arguing that it will mean further raising the cost of living.

On Tuesday – the same day that parliament passed the legislation – a group of protesters broke through police lines and stormed parliament in the capital Nairobi, setting part of the building on fire. Several vehicles and buildings were also set ablaze in different Kenyan cities, including the building that houses the office of the Governor of Nairobi County, Johnson Sakaja.

Kenya’s president said on Wednesday said he won’t sign into law a finance bill. Ruto said the proposed bill caused “widespread dissatisfaction” and that he has listened and “conceded.”

Members of the Youth Serving Christ (YSC) of Holy Family Minor Basilica of Kenya’s Catholic Archdiocese of Nairobi (ADN) are also part of the protesting Kenyans.

The youth-led protests known as Generation Z (Gen –Z) started on June 18 when the bill was tabled for debate in parliament.

On June 20, the protests spread to at least 18 Kenyan cities and townships. Still, legislators approved the Bill in its second reading, with 204 MPs voting for the Bill against 115 who opposed it.

On June 25, legislators met again and approved proposed amendments to the Bill. Ruto has 14 days to sign the Bill into law or return it to the legislators for further amendments.

In a June 23 joint statement, the Catholic youths described the Bill as the one “common” enemy for well-meaning Kenyans.

“As most of you are aware, if not all, this Bill not only seeks to overtax Kenyans but also to promote oppression, which generally leads to a very poor quality of life for most people, who are not as endowed as the people who are in power,” they said.

They said voicing opposition to the Bill is “a matter that the Church should stand firm in,” because the Church has for a very long time,” been a pillar for justice, and a voice of reason.”

According to the BBC, at least 13 people have been killed and several others wounded.

Ruto said on Tuesday that all means will be deployed to “thwart any attempts by dangerous criminals to undermine the security and stability of our country.”

Police entered Holy Family Basilica and used tear gas against paramedics who were assisting injured protesters

The response by the security forces has received sharp rebuke from the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Kenya.

In a statement Tuesday, the bishops condemned the police for their disproportionate use of force.

“We, the Catholic Bishops, while appreciating several occasions the police have tried to act rightly, decry and condemn in the strongest terms, the use of force by the police, the arrests, and the indiscriminate and unnecessary use of live bullets,” the statement reads.

“Unwarranted attacks on peaceful protesters cannot be justified. The police have many ways to ensure protests remain peaceful,” they said.

They called on the police to “focus on criminals who implant themselves in peaceful protests to create chaos and rob or destroy property. As a country, we have seen demonstrations and protests in the past.”

The bishops said police assault on the Holy Family Basilica violated basic morality.

“Remember places of worship are not our own. We cannot pretend to take them as if they were ours. They are God’s space and therefore we can’t use them for any other agenda but that which relates to God,” the Church leaders said.

“Churches accommodate people irrespective of their opinions or political standing. However, we emphasize that we, the Catholic Bishops, have issued clear guidelines to our priests and pastoral agents not to use liturgical spaces for political agitation of any kind. All are welcome and should feel at home in our churches but respect the places of worship,” they said.

The bishops said by using excessive force, the police are not only fueling the violence, but also driving up public hate towards the police department.

The Church leaders, while acknowledging the importance of taxes for the development of the country, warned against over-taxing already exhausted citizens.

“The country is bleeding and therefore we invite the Government to reflect on this matter with the seriousness it deserves,” they said in their June 25 statement.

They said they stood with the protesters, and praised them for being “alive to the negative impact punitive taxes have in their own lives.”

“The government needs to face the plain truth that families are immensely suffering,” the bishops added.

They urged the Ruto government to listen to the pain of Kenyans, saying that failing to address their concerns would only further plunge the youths into more misery.

The president now says he will listen to the people.

“It is necessary for us to have a conversation as a nation on how to do we manage the affairs of the country together,” Ruto said on Wednesday.