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By Lillian Omariba
Nairobi - The global debate between scientists and conservative Christians over evolution has hit Kenya, where an exhibit of one of the world's finest collections of early hominid fossils is under threat.
As the famed National Museum of Kenya (NMK) prepares to re-open next year after massive EU-funded renovations, evangelicals are demanding the display be removed or at least shunted to a less prominent location.
The Origins Of Man exhibit, comprised of pre-historic finds from around Africa's Great Rift Valley considered by many to be the cradle of humanity, is offensive as it promotes Charles Darwin's theory of evolution, they say.
"When museums put it out there that man evolved from apes, theologically they are affecting many people who are Christians, who believe God created us," says Bishop Boniface Adoyo, who is leading a campaign against the exhibit.
"It's creating a big weapon against Christians that's killing our faith," he told AFP, calling evolution theory an "insult" and dangerous to youths. "When children go to museums they'll start believing we evolved from these apes.
"This is not the truth," said Adoyo, pastor of Nairobi's "Christ is the Answer Ministries" and chairman of the Evangelical Alliance of Kenya, which claims to represent churches of 35 denominations with nine million members.
"I can't stand it, neither can other Christians," he said.
The bishop's high-profile drive to force the government-funded museum to downgrade what is arguably its most important collection has put him squarely at odds with the scientific community and curators.
Many of the fossils were discovered by legendary paleontologists Louis and Mary Leakey in east Africa whose pre-historic finds around the Olduvai Gorge, Lake Victoria and Lake Turkana are seen by many as proof of Darwin's theory.
Their son, Richard, himself a noted anthropologist and conservationist, is particularly disturbed by the furore and is speaking out against what he says is a misguided attempt to reject sound science.
"The church is being ridiculous," he told AFP. "The church leaders are out of step. They should concentrate on their faith and leave scientists to concentrate on their historical work and defend it."
"Evolution theory is accepted across the world," he said. "This is scientific history and Kenya has the best of this evolutional history. Globally, few can match that claim to fame."
Officials at the museum, which houses priceless items including remains of hominid species dating back 1,7 million to 1,2 million years, are loath to get involved in the fractious debate but defend the exhibition.
"The fossils have confirmed Kenya's position as the cradle of mankind and have drawn large numbers of visitors," the museum said in a statement released shortly after Adoyo launched his campaign.
In an email response to questions posed by AFP, NMK director general Farah Iddle said the museum "strives to accommodate divergent views and ideas".
"However, it also has the responsibility of ensuring that the integral research findings that have been developed over time are preserved," he said.
"This includes the fossil collection that's the scientific evidence that shows the relationship between apes' fossils dated millions of years back and the modern man."
Exact display plans for the exhibit when the 75-year-old museum re-opens in June 2007 are still being discussed but officials said they hope to keep it in a position of prominence among three new re-designed galleries.
What will not likely change, they say, is the placement of a huge bronze sculpture outside the museum's main gate, which depicts a series of figures from ape to humans gradually becoming more erect as they walk.