By Joseph Akwiri
MOMBASA, Kenya (Reuters) - Youths threw petrol bombs at two Kenyan churches on Christmas day, police said on Thursday, in the latest bout of violence against Christians on the country's predominantly Muslim coast.
Police and witnesses said the churches on the edge of port city of Mombasa were attacked in the early hours of December 25 after churchgoers held services to usher in Christmas.
Police had no suspects but were exploring the possibility that the attacks may have been launched by Muslim militants or by supporters of the Mombasa Republican Council (MRC), an illegal movement that wants the coastal region to secede from Kenya.
Many Muslims on the Indian Ocean coastline feel marginalized by Kenya's predominantly Christian government and the historically cordial relations between the two communities have suffered strains in recent years.
Police said Muslim youths believed to be controlled by radical preachers with links to Somali militant group al Shabaab might be behind the attacks, which left one church completely destroyed.
"The churches are located in an area mainly inhabited by Muslims, and church members had reported threats before from some youth who told them to close the churches down," said Robert Mureithi, the Likoni area police chief.
Al Shabaab in September raided a shopping mall in Nairobi, killing at least 67 people in the biggest attack on Kenyan soil since al Qaeda bombed the U.S. embassy in the capital in 1998.
A senior Muslim cleric said the arson attack might be part of an attempt by radicals to provoke religious unrest.
"They want Christians to begin a fight with Muslims so that al Shabaab can thrive in Kenya, but am glad Christians are wiser," Sheikh Juma Ngao, head of the Kenya Muslim National Advisory Council, told Reuters.
Mureithi said police are also examining the possibility that one or both of the attacks were by MRC members.
"We found writings scribbled on the gate of one church saying 'Pwani si Kenya' or 'Coast is not Kenya'. This is a slogan used by the MRC," Moses Andayi, a member of Christ Outreach Church, which was destroyed, told Reuters.
"To do this on Christmas Day is an attempt to send a very strong message to us."
Christians on the coast say they suspect radical Muslims killed two Christian preachers in November, while two Muslim clerics were killed this month in drive-by shootings which their supporters said were extra-judicial killings by the police. The police deny killing the clerics.
(Writing by Drazen Jorgic; Editing by Anthony Barker)